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DENVER — Colorado’s mild winters over the past few years have been great for people who love the outdoors, but Canada geese are also enjoying the weather.
A record number of migratory geese came to the state last year and hundreds of thousands are here once again this winter — and they’re staying longer than in years past.
“Numbers have been increasing across most of North America over the last several decades,” said Jim Gammonley, the bird research leader for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The number of breeder geese that were born in Colorado and live here throughout the year is stable but growing slowly. However, the number of migratory geese staying here for the winter is growing much more rapidly.
“They tend to go only as far south as they need to,” Gammonley said.
Once the geese find a place they like, they also tend to return there winter after winter. With the warmer winters Colorado has been experiencing and the urban heat island effect, lakes and ponds aren’t freezing over and many of these geese are spending their entire winter here before heading north again for the warmer months.
The increased number of geese has been good for Colorado’s hunting community.
“People come from all across the country to hunt geese in Colorado and they do fairly well here,” Gammonley said.
However, other outdoor sports like golf have been suffering because of all the geese. Bill Ramsey, the director of golf for South Suburban Parks and Recreation District, said warm winters have extended the golf season in places like Lone Tree. However, he’s seen the growth in geese using the course as well.
“I think the geese population has really grown for the last couple of years,” Ramsey said. “Certainly, the droppings are quite a mess and it’s an unhealthy situation for the golfers. We’re not mowing every day that the droppings accumulate, and they get to be a real health hazard out there. They’re a mess for your pair of shoes or your golf ball.”
Beyond that, Ramsey says the geese can be very destructive to the golf course itself since they eat the grass and even dig holes, leaving behind divits in the putting greens. Maintenance crews do the best they can to both scare the geese off and clean up after them.
Each golf course in the South Suburban Parks and Rec. district even has its own Goosinator device that scares the geese off but they always come back.
“They seem to know when the maintenance guys go home and they accumulate after quitting hours,” Ramsey said.
All those geese create quite a mess wherever they choose to spend the winter. For the people who use Washington Park in Denver, it means the grassy areas are nearly unusable.
“I have a granddaughter and when she visits I’m not going to let her play in the grass because it’s just all goose poop, and when I go home from my walk I take off my shoes because I’ve got goose poop on them,” said Carla Foote, who has lived near the park for more than 36 years.
Foote says she doesn’t remember the droppings being this big of a problem when her children were growing up but now it’s become a fact of life for people who use Wash Park.
She would prefer if the geese could be pushed to a location that’s less frequently used by people.
“Cherry Creek Reservoir, that’s great, they can have all the geese they want out there, but this is an urban park that a lot of people use,” Foots said.
She’s not the only one who has noticed the increase in geese here. Bob Chernet has also lived near Wash Park for years and has seen the change.
“It has gotten worse year by year. I know they put the Goosinator out in some of the parks and that has helped a little bit, but that just gets them out in the roadways and into the grassy areas, so maybe they should just stay in the lakes,” Chernet said.
He likes the geese but hates all of the droppings and he worries about the geese getting hurt by cars and cyclists.
Denver Parks and Recreation wildlife specialist Vicki Vargas-Madrid says they haven’t seen a big increase in the amount of roadkill, but the number one complaint her office gets is about goose droppings.
Denver also uses certain measures to manage the goose population in its parks, however Vargas-Madrid is keenly aware of the ripple effects those tactics can create since the geese simply find another place to go.
“We have created this habitat for them, whether it’s intentional or not, and it’s unrealistic or impossible to not include them in our parks,” Vargas-Madrid said.
Gammonley says the geese mitigation steps places like Denver and Lone Tree take don’t hurt the geese but do cause problems elsewhere.
“In places like the Denver metro area, it would be helpful to have more of a coordinated effort where different property owners get together to redistribute geese to where people aren’t inheriting someone else’s problems,” he said.
Both Vargas-Madrid and Gammonley believe people need to do a better job learning to coexist with the growing number of geese because they don’t believe the migratory population will decrease anytime soon.
“Geese are taking advantage of that habitat that we’ve created and they’re very adaptable, so humans and geese, for the foreseeable future, are going to have to try to find ways to live together,” Gammonley said.
That means encouraging people to not feed the geese and also learning to share parks and open spaces with the birds.