The U.S. Department of Agriculture has acknowledged it erred in June by removing from a Baldwin park 86 Canada geese that were later euthanized.
The federal agency cited an "administrative error" in "misunderstanding" that the South Shore park was not close enough to JFK Airport to warrant action, according to officials and documents.
In a letter to Nassau County, the agriculture department said it uses a 7-mile radius for JFK Airport for removing birds in an effort to prevent bird strikes, and the distance from Milburn Pond Park in Baldwin to the Queens airport was farther than that. Distances can vary with each airport.
The department also can remove geese regardless of their proximity to airports by acting on concerns about safety, health, contamination or property damage, said Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
In a July letter to Brian Schneider, Nassau deputy county executive for parks and public works, William F. Wilmoth, assistant state director for Wildlife Services, said, "As in recent years, this work was conducted at several other Nassau County Parks within 7 miles of JFK Airport with the goal of reducing the hazard to aircraft posed by resident Canada geese. When we reached out to the Parks Department this year for Milburn Pond Park, it was with the understanding that it was a park within the 7-mile radius. However, we erred in this understanding and apologize for any confusion this may have led to within your department and with Nassau County residents."
The Wildlife Service division of the USDA-APHIS has had permission to enter Milburn since 2016, when the county's parks department signed off on a work order to provide "wildlife damage management" there.
The document permits such tactics for the species as "handcaught/gathered" as well as use of "coral traps" and "hand tools." The document lists Canada geese, mute swans, American Kestrel falcons and red-tailed hawks.
It included the signature of a representative of the parks department under the administration of former County Executive Edward Mangano. Permission for USDA management of the parks did not require approval of the county legislature.
Nassau County rescinded the agreement after it "it came to the county's attention" that the park was more than 7 miles from JFK Airport, said Mike Fricchione, a spokesman for the administration of County Executive Laura Curran, who took office in 2018. Fricchione said the South Shore Audubon Society had asked the county to look into the geese removal at Milburn.
"When it came to the County’s attention that the park was outside of the 7-mile JFK Airport radius, the agreement was rescinded and the error was brought to the attention of the USDA, which has since taken responsibility for the oversight,” Fricchione said in a statement.
Espinosa said no laws were broken in the removal of the geese.
"The geese were taken to the processor where they were humanely euthanized and processed for consumption and the meat was provided to local food banks. Wildlife Services did not euthanize the geese," she said.
Schneider said in an interview that the parks department for years had attempted to manage the Canada geese population without having to round them up. But egg-addling, a method of using corn oil to prevent eggs from hatching, was time consuming and ineffective, he said.
Schneider said the parks department entered into agreements with the USDA, which has also gathered geese to be euthanized at three parks that are a "stone's throw" from JFK Airport: North Woodmere Park and Golf Course, Inwood Park and Grant Park in Hewlett.
“For some reason, Milburn Pond got lumped into that group, I don’t know when it happened, it wasn’t certainly on my watch.”
One of the county parks deputies, "unbenkownst to me . . . basically gave a sign off on it," Schneider said.
The removal at Milburn was not the first under the 2016 work order. After Newsday inquired, the USDA said it had removed 154 Canada geese at Milburn on June 21, 2016, and the geese were later euthanized.
Brien Weiner, president of the South Shore Audubon Society, had asked the county to investigate the removal in an email to officials on July 19.
Weiner said in an interview, “It’s tragic, I don’t understand how the mistake was made. Milburn Pond is very obviously not within the 7-mile radius of any airports."
Beth Rudetsky of Woodmere said she and a friend began visiting Milburn Pond Park in April where they became transfixed by a flock of geese, and eventually, new goslings. She had a nickname for them: "The teenagers," she said, because "they are growing so fast."
They came to the mostly empty park in the early days of the pandemic, and the geese were a calming influence.
In June, she recalled, her friend went on a vacation and she stopped visiting the park for a week. The Monday after Father's Day, Rudetsky said, she returned to what she described as a "ghost pond."
"I said, 'where are the teenagers?' " she said, recalling a strange feeling that "there are no birds in the water, there are no geese, where is everyone?"
Legis. Debra Mulé (D-Freeport), whose district includes the park, said: "I'm not happy that it happened."
She said the subject of geese is divisive. "I think arguments can certainly be made about why sometimes it's appropriate for geese removal, such as near the airports, or they're becoming so overrun . . . but it has to be done properly."
Butch Yamali, whose Coral House catering hall and wedding venue overlooks Milburn Pond, said the wildlife are a part of the pond's charm. He said he had not requested the geese's removal.
"They make a mess, but we clean it up," he said. "You have to have some kind of wildlife around, or it would look weird."
Geese removals that resulted in their euthanasia, at Nassau County operated parks, since 2016
Nassau County Parks
Millburn Pond: 154 in 2016, 86 in 2020
Grant: 12 in 2016
Inwood: 19 in 2016, 27 in 2019
North Woodmere Park and Golf Course: 50 in 2018, 110 in 2019, and 72 in 2020
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service