An animal-rights group has filed a lawsuit asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expose details about Denver Parks and Recreation's goose-culling program.
At issue are the number of geese the USDA initially authorized to be processed, and how much the agency paid per bird, according to the lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund in late November. The information had been redacted in the 2019 contract between the USDA’s Wildlife Services Program and a big game and poultry processing plant.
Denver’s goose-culling program, operated during the summers of 2019 and 2020, was an effort to reduce the city’s residential goose populations after other programs had come up short. The program quickly drew criticism from animal-rights activists. At the same time, the resulting goose meat served another purpose: feeding people struggling with food insecurity.
ALDF initially submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the USDA Wildlife Service program last fall because of concerns that “a lot of the process and even the early actions [of the government] were shrouded in secrecy,” says Danny Waltz, senior staff attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. The group believes that the information could help activist groups get a clearer picture of the initial intention of the culling program, he says.
The culling program is part of a “multi-strategy approach used to maintain healthy habitats in Denver parks,” Denver Parks and Recreation writes on its website. Other techniques include hazing (where DPR employs a Goosinator, a mechanical device that looks like a predator and makes an undesirable sound to scare geese away), egg oiling (to prevent eggs from hatching), coyote cutouts and native grass plantings. The department hopes that fewer resident geese (those that live in the parks all year) will also reduce the amount of goose poop left in the park; a single goose produces one pound every day. Many aspects of the multi-strategy approach have been in use for years. They aim to decrease citizen complaints and the hours needed for maintenance, while leaving a cleaner park system that better supports other wildlife and reduces the potential for waterway pollution.
In 2019, 1,662 geese were culled from Washington Park, City Park, Sloan’s Lake and Garfield Park, and in 2020, 517 birds were removed from Sloan’s Lake, Harvey Park, Garfield Lake and Garland Lake, according to the Parks and Recreation website and a Denverite article citing the department. The organization was granted a permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in 2019 that legally allowed them to cull 2,200 geese that year.
When the USDA released documents last year in response to ALDF’s first FOIA request, several points were redacted. “In particular, the number of geese that the agency had authorized to be killed over the contract...[and] how much the agency is paying the Fort Collins area slaughterhouse per bird,” explains Waltz. “We don’t know what the agency was envisioning, and what they could still go ahead and do.”
The organization appealed to the USDA in March 2020, saying that the agency improperly withheld some information when it had provided documents. When it still hadn’t received a response in November, the ALDF filed a lawsuit.
The USDA Wildlife Services program did not respond immediately for comment over why those figures were redacted.
However, Scott Gilmore, Deputy Manager of Denver Parks and Recreation, confirmed that the department had a contract with USDA Wildlife Services for $150,000 for three years to use several strategies to reduce Denver’s goose population. In 2019, Parks and Recreation used almost the entire amount. He says the money did go toward culling, but that it also funded egg oiling and surveys to determine how many geese the area can sustain. Gilmore also notes that the department will not be culling in 2021.
“We tried to be as transparent as possible,” Gilmore says. “It was not an easy decision. I made the decision, and I used the best science available to us.” Further, he adds, it was important to him from the start to try to donate the meat to food pantries.
As a result, the program has benefited people struggling with food insecurity. “During June and July 2019, 1,521 pounds of Canada goose meat was donated to families in Denver and Larimer counties,” the USDA writes in its Resident Canada Goose Damage Management Efforts.
Metro Caring is one of the organizations that received donations from the program. The group received 268 pounds in 2019 and another 350 pounds this year. Sheena Kadi, director of strategy and communities for Metro Caring, acknowledges that the meat donation is “a secondary benefit to what the city’s trying to do, which was to address the overpopulation of geese in the city parks.” However, the additional food has helped the organization combat hunger, especially during the pandemic.
The organization saw a 300 percent increase in demand for food as of September, and it currently serves an average of 7,128 people per month as compared to an average of 2,364 people pre-pandemic. Metro Caring provides families with nutritious meals, Kadi says. To do so, each food box includes fresh fruit and vegetables, grains, dairy and protein. The goose meat the agency received this past September helped fill out at least ninety boxes, Kadi says.
“I’m not one to say whether or not someone’s beliefs around animal rights are right or wrong,” Kadi continues. “I can absolutely understand folks, especially animal-rights activists, asking questions and wanting more information.”
The conversation should focus on “why one in three Coloradans are experiencing hunger during a health pandemic and economic crisis,” she says. Coloradans do not go hungry because of a lack of food. Coloradans go hungry because they don’t have enough money to put food on the table.”
Waltz believes that people’s money is an important factor in the ALDF lawsuit, as well. “How much are federal taxpayers paying for the slaughter of these birds?” he asks.
The transparency they’re asking for in the lawsuit is meant to help voters decide which programs their taxes fund. Instead of culling geese, Waltz says, the ALDF hopes Denver Parks and Rec will prioritize a program where the driving intention is “the welfare and lives of the animals,” and he wants that prioritized over the cost of alternatives.