Canadian geese abound but not on our dinnerplates—yet.

Free-Range Fowl

by Samantha Barrow

Free-Range Fowl

Elizabeth Cecil

Record numbers of vineyard residents looking for assistance visited the Food Pantry and Island Senior Centers last winter, and many of us are nervous about going into another off-season after a summer that didn’t quite pad our checkbooks. At the same time, the consumer market demand for free-range or Island-grown poultry continues to increase as “sustainable” becomes the new “green.” And to preserve our environment, local conservation groups like Tisbury Water Ways and Edgartown’s Great Pond Foundation eagerly search for new solutions against the threat nitrogen poses to our waterways.

So why is the population of big, juicy birds that cross our skies in graceful V formations, honking into the sunset after leaving behind trails of mess (carrying nitrogen and many unhappy-making organisms such as salmonella, giardia and cryptosporidium), increasing in such staggering numbers? Why are we not taking advantage of the natural bounty that flies around us, while cleaning up our delicate ecosystem at the same time?

I began my search for solutions to our triad of troubles involving hunger, environment, and geese, with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Their website states, “To achieve a reasonable comfort level for both geese and people, the number of geese must be reduced…. The most efficient way is to increase mortality of adult geese.”

They don’t name hunting specifically as a solution to this problem, but I paid a visit to Bob DeLisle, President of the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club, to see if he and his den of hunters could help achieve this balance for us. On a foggy summer afternoon at the end of 3rd street, he pointed to white, green, and brown excrement frosting the lawn. “You should have seen it before they mowed,” he said. “This is just from the last two days.” Dozens of geese reside here on the crew-cut short grass that abuts Sengekontacket Pond, an area surrounded by a mini arena of benches and picnic tables. The geese snack unperturbed by the painted plywood wolves skulking around the periphery and the faux owl resting atop the low trap house, which are designed to scare them off.

Bob and I reviewed our geese facts: They live about 20 years, have four to six goslings per annum, drop one to two and a half pounds of waste a day, and mate for life. They’ve been known to take down planes and are particularly aggressive during nesting season. Coast-to-coast government and conservation agencies describe them as a nuisance.

Migration is learned behavior (as opposed to innate) for these birds who remain loyal to their travel routes and nesting grounds year after year. Part of our problem with geese began in 1935, when it became illegal to use live clipped-wing geese as decoys, so a substantial population of crippled geese was set free. They couldn’t migrate, but they sure could reproduce. With few natural predators in suburban and semi-rural areas and sprawling supplies of the nutritious, fertilized lawns, fields, and golf courses that they love best, a community of resident geese blossomed.

In 1918, The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted between the U.S. and Canada to protect vulnerable species—including the Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)—at a time when the bird and feather trade was booming. An estimated 60% of the geese found in the Massachusetts Coastal Region (our designated hunting zone) don’t migrate any more, but remain protected under this act to safeguard the 40% that still travel down from maritime Canada in the winter months. Bob doesn’t shoot geese personally because he can’t bring his dogs with him (his are trained only to chase upland game such as pheasant and grouse), and he doesn’t like to eat them. “Too gamey,” he says. But he sent me towards plenty of men who do both.

Like many hunters, Vineyard native Cooper Gilkes of Coop’s Bait and Tackle, won’t kill what he won’t eat, and claims to have the best goose recipe ever. When he tires of eating them or just wants to share the bounty, “Every goose is gone in four phone calls,” he said. Coop cited the ban on winter hunting intended to protect the migrant geese as the primary barrier to restoring the “reasonable comfort level” for us. In the fall, there are still too many people around to hunt public land safely, and private ownership continues to change dramatically. Plots divide into smaller and smaller pieces, and new owners not familiar with the way some folks have been feeding themselves here for centuries do not welcome men or women with guns creeping onto their property before sunrise to shoot things.

Coop alluded to the fact that some golf courses, farms, and individuals remain open to and even encourage hunters on their land, but with access dwindling, you’d be more likely to get an old Islander to give up a parking spot on Main Street in August than a sweet hunting site. It’s not impossible to find your niche here, however. David Radcliffe, the Farm Steward of Pilot Hill Farm and a lifetime hunter, has lived on-Island full-time for only 5 years but says, “If you’re industrious, you’ll find your own way. You may upset a few people, but at least you’re trying. Besides,” he continues, “there is more protein than you can imagine on this Island; from the shellfish to the fish to the waterfowl to the venison, it’s all here.” We just need a way of regulating and publicly distributing access to good hunting land that isn’t confined by town ordinances or private ownership.

Inspiring models of sharing the abundance of protein with people in need thrive on and off-Island. The Wampanoag Tribe encourages hunters to donate a portion of their harvests, be it goose, scallops, venison, or duck, to the Council’s game freezer. Used for cultural events including the monthly Elders’ lunch, the game freezer also serves as the unofficial food pantry to help Tribe members in need.

Every year the Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby donates much or their catch to our Senior Centers. I asked Rose Cogliano, Assistant Director of the Oak Bluffs center, if she thinks seniors would welcome the addition of goose breasts. “I’m Italian, so it doesn’t make me schifozz; we eat that stuff, but it might be a cultural thing.” With a little education and a couple of good recipes, though, we agreed seniors and others in need may welcome a chemical free, nutritious meal that reconnects them to our community traditions.

On the mainland, the organization Hunters for the Hungry donated approximately 170,000 lb. of meat to fellow Texans in 2008 alone. We also have something to learn from Virginia, where The Ministry of Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Homeless gives “hunters a chance to return to their heritage as food providers,” but founder Rick Wilson notes that “over the last 50 years, hunting has become a dirty word, especially with the liberal media.”

Perhaps it’s time for an I.H.I.—Island Hunting Initiative (or ‘Harvesting ’ if folks prefer the softer focus on our woods and wetlands). Modeled after the Island Grown Initiative that successfully bridges many of the gaps between farmers and eaters, I.H.I could help educate land owners about the positive effects hunters have on geese removal, while throwing in some recipes and cooking classes to boost the goose’s culinary (and gustatory) reputation. With the myriad of challenges our Island living presents, this could be one new way to raise consciousness of our interdepen-ence and alleviate some of the pressures of surviving another challenging winter along the way.