Each winter tens of thousands of white snow geese descend upon western Richmond. With a cacophony of honking, they root through local schoolyards and parks leaving the areas devoid of vegetation but full of mud and feces.
The increasing population has longtime Richmond Coun. Harold Steves calling for a cull of the waterfowl. While he supports a new program to train volunteers and their dogs to chase geese away from public lands, he said it won't do much more than move the birds from one field to another.
Steves originally called for the cull 10 years ago, before the geese moved inland from Sturgeon Banks, the 8,700-hectare estuary to the west of Richmond.
At the time, he said, he was roundly criticized for supporting killing the birds.
"I have a report from 1972 when there were 20,000 snow geese in the Fraser River estuary," he said. "When I was calling for the cull there were 80,000 snow geese. Last year, there were 100,000."
This year, he predicted, there could be as many as 120,000.
Richmond is planning to train a limited number of volunteers and their medium-to large-sized dogs to harass geese starting this month and continuing to April.
Volunteers will be trained professionally, assigned to a specific park or field, and given an identifying vest to wear.
They will work at their convenience from 4 p.m. to dusk Monday to Friday and 9 a.m. to dusk on weekends.
Steves said part of the reason for the increasing number of geese has to do with global warming. With more snow melting earlier on the birds' summer nesting area on Wrangel Island, a Russian territory in the Arctic Ocean, the geese have used the expanding breeding ground to produce more offspring.
Two years ago, government wildlife biologist Jack Evans advised city council that daily hunting in the Sturgeon Banks area by the Lower Mainland's roughly 2,000 licensed hunters was one option to help bring down the snow geese population. However, "staff and council didn't think it was going to get this bad," so they decided against opening up the area to hunting, Steves said.
Richmond Rod and Gun Club secretary Albert Wood said his club has 60 members hunting legally in Richmond now and would gladly issue permits and monitor any hunters if hunting was once again allowed in Sturgeon Banks.
"There are so many birds," Wood said. "When they feed they're basically pulling out the vegetation by the roots and they're eating everything - it's just mud out there.
"We would be very prepared for the cull."
However, Steves said even if hunting was re-introduced, it wouldn't have much of an immediate impact, because the birds have become almost domesticated and are used to feeding inland. Walk into a flock of thousands of geese feeding in a field, he said, and they'll open a pathway that will close in behind.
Wood said many hunters smoke the goose meat or turn it into jerky. Steves, a member of one of Richmond's pioneering families, said he used to eat snow geese regularly as a youngster growing up in the area and maintains they make a wonderful meal.
"We used to live on snow geese," he said. "That was our main source of food. We had goose dinner every Christmas. Now you can't because you can't shoot them on Sturgeon Banks." With the construction of the South Fraser Perimeter Road and the expansion of Delta-port, about 225 hectares of grassy fields that the snow geese used to feed on have been lost to development. He believes that habitat loss will lead to the problem only getting worse in Richmond.
When the birds leave on their 5,000-kilometre migration from the Arctic Circle, they divide into two groups: one that winters in the estuaries of the Fraser and Skagit rivers, and the other that heads further south to Central Valley in California.
In 2010, Richmond expanded its program to combat the snow geese by hiring more dog handlers to scare the birds away and convincing farmers to plant grass so the birds can feed on the roots.