It was still dark outside when Denver’s Canadian geese were rounded up and loaded into bright orange plastic cages by Wildlife Service officers with the Department of Agriculture. At that early hour, the molting geese were all but defenseless.
Where exactly they went after that and what exactly happened to them, is still unclear. We know for certain, though, that 1,662 of these birds were slaughtered and around 500 pounds of their meat was served to Denver’s needy through Metro Caring.
It was a unique solution to the city’s goose problem, which has, in recent years escalated to an unmanageable point. Scott Gilmore, Denver’s deputy director of Parks and Recreation, explains that Denver is now home to over 5,000 nesting Canadian geese. A number that far exceeds the population that should exist here naturally, according to Gilmore, and which needed to be reduced by around 40% (or 2000 birds).
“This is a wildlife species that should be a migratory species, but because of people and our actions, has become a resident population,” explains Gilmore. “Which is really negatively impacting our parks environmentally, and the ability for people to enjoy the parks, too.”
When this story hit the news last year, it caused huge backlash. Particularly (and predictably) among vegan and animal rights activist communities. Gilmore became the target of the internet’s ire, as he was lambasted for initiating this program without putting it to a public vote — many called for him to step down or be fired — some took things even further.
“Last year I got quite a few death threats,” he says, adding that, “This year hasn't been as bad.”
Gilmore comes from a background with Colorado Parks and Wildlife where he used to work as a wildlife biologist. And, he stands by his decision to cull Denver’s geese throughout the city’s parks — despite the furor it’s caused. His department is managing Denver’s space, he points out, not just Denver’s geese. Which means they’ve got an obligation to control the goose population when it gets out of hand and starts stressing the ecosystem at large.
“Removing the geese out of these parks actually has opened up a lot of space for other species to fill in,” says Gilmore. “Now you're actually seeing more diversity of species in the parks.”
He says, if you look closely you’ll see a richness of waterfowl species that wasn’t as plentiful in previous years: widgeons, wood ducks, egrets, American coots and other diverse species that have found room to thrive in the vacant space left by 1,662 (now-dead-and-gone) Canadian geese.
However, groups like Canada Geese Protection Colorado don’t quite see this as an environmental conservation program. They argue that there are far more humane ways of dealing with Denver’s exploding goose population, than to round them up gestapo-style and cart them off to a meat processing facility.
“Oiling” the goose eggs is one such method, which effectively addles goose eggs by depriving the embryos within of oxygen and killing them. In 2018 Parks and Recreation oiled some 3,000 eggs throughout Denver, to no avail. The goose population remained as strong as ever. Hazing is another alternative technique, which boils down to goose harassment — it can be done by people (if they aren’t afraid of being attacked by a feral goose) or with robots, like Denver’s “Goosinator” — which, notably, also didn’t work very well.
While these methods are surely more humane than systematically culling the birds, they have repeatedly proven to be largely ineffective at actually curbing the resident goose population of Denver. And, according to Gilmore, they are too costly to dedicate so much time, effort and resources to.
That’s why, they’re culling again this year. Parks and Recreation still has several hundred geese to slaughter before they’ve met their goal of reducing goose populations by 40%. But, Gilmore says they’re getting really close.
“We’ve reached a number that is much more manageable,” he says. “So, I believe we will not have to cull geese in 2021.”
As of July 8th, this was the rough plan for goose removal in 2020: 50 geese from Garfield Park; 50 more from Harvey Park; 100 geese from Sloan’s Lake; 30 geese from Barnum Park; 25 geese from Garland Park; and another 100 from the City Park Golf Course.
All told, they’ll be harvesting over 350 geese. All of which will be tested for contamination (from any pesticides or other chemicals) before being sent to Metro Cares, one of Denver’s most renowned anti-hunger organizations. There, the ground meat is cooked up by real chefs and served to Denver’s needy — from park to table.
“This is a unique opportunity, actually,” said Rob Russell, a nutritionist and food educator who cooked up a park goose breakfast casserole, cottage pie, chili and a South African curry casserole topped with egg custard for Metro Cares last year.
“I’ve only cooked goose on special occasions,” said Russel, in an interview with the Denver Post. “Wild geese have a different flavor altogether. Wild geese are gamey and have more fat. Park geese are leaner.”
What does a “lean” Denver park goose actually taste like? You might be wondering. Well, by almost all accounts: it was similar in flavor and consistency to ground beef…
Allyson Reedy, a Denver Post food critic who tried it, wrote, “For those brave enough to take a gander, Denver park goose is a pleasant surprise.”
No matter how you slice it, this program is a creative way of solving Denver’s goose problem — while at the same time making sure that the lives of these geese are not wasted. They’re going to feed hungry people in their own city, who are probably more than happy to have access to fresh, hot, healthy meat.
“Legally, we could have just had Wildlife Services throw these birds in a dump,” says Gilmore. “We could have. And it probably would have been a lot quieter and a lot quicker. But I wanted to make sure that we were putting the meat to a good use.”
Luckily for everyone (from the Canadian geese, to the animal activists, to Gilmore and Denver Parks and Recreation at large) no one is planning on culling geese again next year. 2020’s round-up will meet the goal Parks and Recreation set forth last year of reducing the number of geese in Denver by 40%. The culling program worked: goose populations have diminished, the hungry have been fed, and the city’s parks are ours again.
For now. However, it’s probably safe to assume that, should these birds rise again, the culling will recommence and Denver’s geese will find themselves back on the menu — again.