Oakland officials said they did not know that pesky geese at the town beach and boat launch would be killed when they asked a federal agency to remove them, and have released the contract that appears to support that.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture removed 18 Canada geese from the beach on Messalonskee Lake and the geese were later killed, because, USDA officials said, there is a glut of them in the state.

Members of the Town Council, reacting to public outrage over the goose deaths, say the town was under the impression the geese would be relocated, and blamed the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the deaths.

Robin Dyer, the USDA’s wildlife services state director, said Thursday the department would release a statement Friday.

The two-page contract, signed by Town Manager Peter Nielsen and the state director of the USDA’s Wildlife Services Office, bolsters the claims of town officials that they intended for the geese to be relocated. The contract makes no mention of the ultimate fate of the geese

Canada geese are protected under federal and state law and cannot be killed without a license. Federal agencies and law enforcement officials are permitted to deal with nuisance wildlife.

On June 20, the geese, which included two sets of parents and several goslings, were rounded up and taken by truck to Augusta to be tested for West Nile virus and other potentially dangerous diseases.

Nielsen said he called in the USDA after getting complaints from residents that goose excrement was fouling the water and a beach area on Messalonskee Lake, making it unpleasant for swimmers to enjoy the spot. The town had tried other methods to drive the geese away in the past, including harassing them and trying to find their nests so that their eggs could be neutralized before hatching.

Nielsen said he had requested that the USDA not kill the geese and understood that the geese would be relocated if they cleared the health test. Because the geese had recently molted and had young goslings, it was considered unlikely that the birds would undertake the long flight necessary to return to the Oakland boat launch.

PUBLIC OUTRAGE

After the Morning Sentinel reported that the geese were killed later in the day after they were removed, the story was picked up by the Associated Press and published in media outlets across the country.

The Oakland town office was flooded with complaints. The online article drew scores of comments, the overwhelming majority of which expressed anger that the geese had been killed. Some called the killing “senseless” and likened it to a “mass murder” of “innocent animals.”

Some expressed surprise that a wildlife management agency would kill animals, and said that either the state or the town should be held accountable.

Others said people should learn to coexist with the geese and described themselves as appalled, disgusted, sad or “mad as hell” about the way in which the situation had been handled, with some saying that the animals should at least have been eaten rather than being left to compost.

Three of the comments were confirmed to be from Town Council member Mark Fisher, who is also the president of Friends of Messalonskee, a lake protection environmental group.

Fisher lambasted the USDA’s state office.

“The state department really screwed over the town of Oakland,” he wrote. “And they slaughtered these geese.”

He wrote that everyone in Oakland who was involved with the issue “were told the geese would be taken to Augusta and tested for West Nile Virus and be released if deemed healthy.”

Fisher reiterated his online comments on Thursday and said he was particularly bothered by the fact that town employees aided in the capture under the belief that they were helping the geese move to a new home.

“They likely went home and told their families that they helped save 18 geese,” he said. “The next day, they would have to go back and tell their kids that the geese were killed.”

Fisher said that, if the town had known, he and other council members would have advocated for other non-lethal measures.

“We would have immediately ended the discussion and not hired the services,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer.”

The contract between the town and the department refers to the service as, variously, a “wildlife damage management project,” a “Canada goose roundup/removal,” and, most broadly, “services.”

It does not mention any cost for euthanization via carbon dioxide, the method used to kill the geese.

The contract’s work plan sets a maximum cost to the town of $1,275.20, and provides a breakdown of cost categories, the largest two of which are personnel, at $571.44 and vehicle fuel, at $431.47.

The bulk of the vehicle fuel costs were expected to be incurred while driving the geese to a remote location, which could be as much as hundreds of miles away, Dyer, of the USDA, said earlier this week.

Because the geese were not transported, the bill is likely to be lower, but Fisher said he didn’t think it would be right for Oakland to profit by the death of the geese.

“For me to have a clear conscience, I would vote to just pay the $1,200 as if they were released,” he said.

Dyer said that after collecting the geese, her department contacted the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, where a regional wildlife biologist typically identifies an area in which captured geese can be safely released.

In this case, all available goose habitat sites had been filled with other geese, Dyer said. She said that releasing more geese into an overpopulated area can lead to dangerous levels of fecal matter in the water.

However, a 2005 waterfowl assessment produced by the fisheries and wildlife department in 2005 found that, while it often generates nuisance complaints, “Canada goose feces pose relatively little risk to human health.”

Keel Kemper, a regional biologist with the MDIF&W, did not return calls on Monday and Thursday seeking comment on the issue.

ROUNDUPS ARE LIMITED

While the USDA state department got 85 calls in 2013 asking for help in dealing with unwanted geese, only about five to 10 result in roundups each year, Dyer said. This is partly because roundups are more expensive and partly because they can only be performed successfully during a few weeks of the year, when the geese are molting.

Dyer said that, in 2013, landowners reported $85,000 in property damage they attribued to Canada geese.

Dyer was unavailable for further comment on Thursday, but said she planned to release a statement on Friday.

For the past 50 years, state wildlife management agencies have had a mixed relationship with geese.

Canada geese were originally brought to Maine to serve as prey for hunters, the fisheries and wildlife report said.

According to the 2005 report, there were no breeding Canada geese in Maine until 1965, when state officials actually began trucking them in from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Over 20 years, a total of about 4,000 geese were brought into Maine until, in 1985, it was determined that a statewide breeding population had been established. By 2005, the year of the report, the population had tripled.

But once geese became a natural part of the landscape, goose complaints began cropping up, often in situations similar to the one faced by Oakland.

“Most nuisance issues in Maine involve geese defecating on lawns or beaches,” the report notes.

In order to address the complaints, through the 1990s, between 50 and 75 geese were moved every year within the state. The state now has an array of recommendations to deal with goose complaints. Dyer said the first option is always to use nonlethal methods of harassment that can, over a period of time, make the geese decide to move on to a more peaceful area.

A 2007 wildlife management plan for the state said that in the state’s northern waterfowl hunt zone, which includes Oakland, the goal is to maintain the goose population while in the southern zone, the goal is to manage goose populations in a way that reduces nuisance complaints to 50 percent of 2005 levels.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

mhhetling@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @hh_matt