Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Small Victories

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is an interesting government entity.
Despite being involved in the killings of millions of birds and other animals every year, USDA is seemingly loath to accept responsibility for these massacres and instead, prefers to shift blame to other governmental agencies, institutions or individuals.
Most of all, USDA likes to blame the press.
In every conversation with a USDA official or spokesperson, aspersions have consistently been thrown at the media from, "You can't believe everything you read," to "I was misquoted or taken out of context," to "Reporters make things up," to "The reporter didn't get the facts straight."
Yesterday, I was told, "Reporters like to sensationalize stories."
This statement from Martin Lowney who is the USDA Director of Wildlife Services for the state of New York.  Lowney was referring to an article not from the National Enquirer or New York Post, but the conservative Wall Street Journal.  (In the past, I have been told the same about the New York Times, though not from Lowney.)
In fact, if one learns anything at all from speaking with USDA officials, it is that USDA does not at all like the national (or local) media.  On the contrary, USDA seems to view all the media as Ringling Brothers clowns who run around, tripping over themselves, while hurling bowling pins at the poor, maligned and very misunderstood, USDA.
Or, maybe the USDA views the national press like it does, Canada geese: Bumbling pests who get in peoples' way.
Nevertheless, despite USDA's "problems" with the press, most of the time USDA officials are quite pleasant and engaging over the phone to members of the public who just happen to call on a quiet Monday afternoon.
Lowney is no exception.
In fact, were one not actually discussing bird shootings or gassings with the cheerful USDA Wildlife Services Director, one might imagine a conversation about the Kardashion sisters or "Dancing with the Stars."
But, is was a conversation about USDA bird shootings, the Falcon program (that was just canned at Kennedy Airport in favor of the more "economical" shootings) and Canada geese.
"I was quoted out of context in the article!" Lowney told me yesterday. "What the article conveniently left out is that Falcon programs don't work!  Do you know of any airport in the country using a falcon program?  NO!  Because they simply don't work!"
"But, a program like that worked in Central Park," I replied.  "A few years ago, the park released a couple of red tail hawks to control pigeons.   Well, ALL the pigeons left the park! Over this past winter, there were hardly any birds in the park at all, so maybe the hawks left because of the lack of food.  I have not seen a hawk since last fall, but the pigeons are starting to come back.  Please don't interpret that as me not liking pigeons.  I love pigeons and am happy to see them back in the park.  But, the point is, when the hawks were there, the pigeons LEFT!"
"Usually, the falcons chase and the birds leave for a little while, but then return. I tell you, these falcon programs don't work!" was Lowney's response seemingly ignoring what I just said.
I attempted a different tactic:
"Look, you just can't go out there and shoot thousands of birds!  This is the 21st century,  not the middle ages!  The article says that 14,886 gulls were shot and killed at Kennedy airport in 1991 before the falcon program.  That's a massacre that would never happen normally in nature!"
"That was only ONE year and it was 1991.   Last year, only a couple of thousand gulls were shot." Lowney answered matter of factly.
("Only," the man said.)
"Yes," I answered.  "And more than 2,600 Canada geese were rounded up from our city parks and gassed by USDA last year.  Now we have hardly any geese at all either in Central or Prospect Park."
"Well, you know Central Park uses a goose harassment program," Lowney replied seeming to want to deflect the implication that USDA was responsible for the huge decline in park goose populations.
Not to be deterred, I answered, "A gentleman from Central Park Conservancy told me they haven't used the harassment program so far this year.  I count a total of ten geese on the whole north side of Central Park.  A very low number at Prospect Park, as well.  And recently, the only goose pair with a nest had their eggs oiled at Prospect Park."
"Who oiled the eggs?" Lowney asked, curiously.
"A wildlife management program was recently organized by the Prospect Park Alliance. Park employees, presumably oiled the eggs."
"Well, I guess they are attempting to bring back other birds, such as rare ducks," Lowney responded. "The geese are a hindrance to other bird populations."
"That is not true!" I argued.  "Other birds, particularly mallards rely on the geese for safety and early warning systems.  Where you see geese, you see mallards and other waterfowl! Right now, I don't see many geese OR mallards!  The fishing that's allowed in these parks seems to be chasing them all out of the park. It will chase out the 'rare' ducks, too, -- if they ever actually return!"
"Well, yes, the fishing is harassment in a sense," Lowney seemingly agreed.
"Look, Mr. Lowney, who do we complain to about not wanting to see the shootings and gassings of birds either at the airports or our parks?
"As said, there are many agencies involved in these decisions. FAA, the airports, the Port Authority, DEC, DEP, etc, etc.  But, the bottom line is we need to protect the flying public from collisions with birds and quite frankly, I don't know how to do that other than what we're doing. Its effective."
"The video on the article site showed one falcon chasing off hundreds of gulls from a landfill.  And yet, you say it's ineffective?"
"Yea, but they (the gulls) come back."
"You know, Mr. Lowney, yesterday, our President said, when referring to the capture and killing of Bin Laden, 'American can do anything when it sets its mind to it.'  Are you saying that we cannot find ways to restore needed wetlands and still run airports?  Are you saying our only solution to wildlife conflicts is killing the wildlife?  That's like making a date with someone and then shooting the person when they show up at the door.  We create parks and wetlands and then shoot the waterfowl that shows up for it!"
"As said, I don't know other ways that work."
At that point, Lowney then announced he had to go to a meeting.
And though the conversation was polite, cordial, respectful and almost friendly, it was still ultimately, very frustrating.
About the only conclusion one could come away from it with,  was that the USDA doesn't like the press.
Perhaps the light of scrutiny isn't that comfortable.
But, at least Lowney seemed to concede a couple of minor points, referring to the fishing as "harassment" and at one point, agreeing that the geese had "ascetic value."
And, at least on the fishing controversy, there was further good news today:
I got a call from the gentleman from Central Park Conservancy informing me that "Fishing is definitely not allowed at Turtle Pond!"
Compared to what I was informed last week, that is indeed very good news.
Small victory for the animals in our parks.  And perhaps a small consolation that sometimes these phone calls actually help to bring some positive result.
Now, to only get those "No Fishing" signs up at Turtle Pond as soon as possible.
I don't want to have to fear Mama or Papa goose getting ensnared in fishing line -- or one of the turtles.  -- PCA

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