The U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services Program is accustomed to doing battle with Washington's seagull population. The agency has been doing so for at least 20 years, according to Ken Gruver, the Department of Agriculture's assistant state director of the Washington-Alaska Wildlife Services Program.
"You don't want workers or people or boat owners just waddling in the droppings of gulls all the time," says Gruver. "Just because we [are allowed to kill a certain number of seagulls each year] doesn't mean we try to reach that number. A lot of times we don't even come close to our permitted numbers."
As was noted by a recent KOMO Olympia story, authorities with the Department of Agriculture have been summoned to help shoo seagulls from the Swantown marina, where locals are fed up with the birds and their crap. The agency's efforts have included both lethal and non-lethal tactics, ranging from paintballs to pellet guns. So far the agency has scared away 30,000 seagulls, and killed 150.
"The percentage there is pretty small," says Gruver, "which is real typical of our organization."
Seagull-shooing efforts like the one at Swantown marina are happening at "Maybe a dozen spots or so around the Puget Sound area," according to Gruver, though a federal court injunction bars him from saying where. Gruver explains the injunction stems from a case in Texas where animal rights advocates requested the name and address of every ranch where the Department of Agriculture was killing coyotes to protect livestock. The ranchers requested the injunction, and a judge granted it.
"Other than that, we're open to public disclosure," says Gruver.
Interestingly, while the Department of Agriculture is a federal entity, the agency's involvement with wildlife control efforts like the one currently targeting the Swantown seagulls is something that people pay for. Gruver says these efforts start with a complaint from the public, and move forward from there.
"Some of the major marinas around town will occasionally contact us with what we call 'bird damage management problems.' It can be gulls, or pigeons, or Canada geese, or things of that nature," explains Gruver. "We're kind of unique as a federal agencies in the fact were' cooperatively funded, and that means we have to charge for our services. So we're not a government agency that just has a big pot of money and we respond to whoever calls. We're more like a private industry. We charge for our services to recoup costs for salaries, equipment and that kind of stuff."
When it comes to these "bird damage management problems," Gruver says the first step is always identifying what's drawing the birds to a specific, troublesome location - which usually turns out to be an artificial food source the gulls have come to fancy.
From there, the task becomes identifying ways to make the area less appealing to the birds, and then combining both non-lethal and lethal avenues for making sure the message is received.
"What we try to do is determine why the birds are there and what habitat modifications we can do to make it not so nice a place for birds to be," says Gruver, who says non-lethal remedies include pyrotechnics, effigies (like fake coyotes or owls), wire spikes and spot-eye balloons designed to scare the birds off.
The trouble is, these scare tactics only last for so long before the birds figure out there's no real threat - which is where the lethal deterrents come into play.
"Really, with lethal control we're not at all trying to eradicate or control the population. We're doing what we call 'non-lethal reinforcement,'" says Gruver, explaining that this occasional "non-lethal reinforcement" acts as the muscle behind what would otherwise quickly become the idle threat of fake predators or loud bangs.
"Non-lethal will scare gulls away for a few days, but they learn," says Gruver. "Lethal reinforces the non-lethal."
Perhaps surprisingly, Gruver says his agency has received very few complaints regarding its lethal reinforcement when it comes to unwanted seagulls.
"We haven't really had any organizations call us to discuss it or show any bad feelings at all," he says.