The war on seagulls continues at state ferry terminals
Gulls are a protected migratory bird, but the federal Department of Fish and Wildlife has given permission to remove up to 4,000 gulls that threaten public health and safety in Washington state this year.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The seagull killers come in the dark of night, when ferries have idled and witnesses are few.
They come clad in dark uniforms, riding in federal trucks with government plates, armed with carbon-dioxide death chambers and air rifles.
They're U.S. government specialists with a license to kill. The mission: Rid the ferry terminals of Puget Sound of birds that can threaten public health and safety — and do it discreetly and quietly.
"We don't want to offend anyone," said Ken Gruver, assistant state director of the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Washington and Alaska Wildlife Services Program.
Last month, after a pair of State Patrol troopers clubbed young gulls to death at the Colman Dock in Seattle, the public debate ran from outrage to consternation toward the pesky winged scavengers and the hazards they pose.
The troopers apparently were trying to eliminate a gull nest after an employee complained that an aggressive mother or father bird was divebombing people, a State Patrol spokesman said. Nonetheless, the troopers have been placed on administrative leave while the state Fish and Wildlife Department determines whether they broke the law.
Gulls, informally called seagulls, are a protected migratory bird. Killing them is a violation of federal law.
But it turns out killing gulls at Colman Dock and other ferry docks is nothing new.
That's where the USDA specialists come in.
For more than a decade, the agency has worked on contract with the state ferry system to rid terminals of problem birds.
It began after a ferry employee contracted psittacosis, a disease humans can get from bird droppings, Gruver said. Aggressive birds also can attack children, employees and commuters, he said.
So USDA specialists tour the ferry docks statewide every couple of weeks, looking for birds that will be targeted in the extermination raids that happen every couple of months.
"We're not trying to remove all the birds," Gruver said. "We're just trying to remove very specific gulls that are posing a human-health and safety hazard to ferry workers and passengers."
Nests are removed by hand. Juvenile birds typically are euthanized in a carbon-dioxide chamber, an airtight metal chamber about the size of a microwave oven, with a tank of the gas attached. Adults often are killed with pellet guns.
Both methods are approved by the USDA as humane, Gruver said.
The carcasses are whisked away before ferries resume their runs in the morning.
Biologist say the gulls perform a vital role in the Puget Sound ecosystem, scavenging opportunistically and scarfing up dead things from the sea and the shore.
Still, there are plenty of gulls, enough that the federal Department of Fish and Wildlife has given the USDA permission to remove up to 4,000 of them in Washington state this year, said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Joan Jewett.
But Gruver estimated that about 60 gulls are removed from all ferry terminals combined in an average year.
In addition to gulls at terminals, the USDA's Wildlife Services deals with other critters that run into trouble with people. Beavers that build road-flooding dams, for example. Or birds that cause airstrikes at airports. Deer that congregate too heavily in suburban neighborhoods. Or coyotes that attack pets.
Gruver said the Wildlife Services always tries to use nonlethal solutions first.
For example, smelting salmon can get bottlenecked at dams and become a feeding attraction to birds of all sorts. Killing a few birds won't do the trick, so a wire grid over the fish keeps the birds out. But enormous nets aren't exactly practical at ferry terminals, Gruver said. And efforts to scare them off aren't successful, either.
The fact is, ferry docks are like huge seagull smorgasbords. People picnic in ferry lines. Ivar's seafood restaurant near the Colman Dock terminal even has a sign encouraging diners to feed gulls (but not pigeons).
For animal-rights advocates, that seems like a logical place to start making changes before looking to kill our feathered friends.
"If you are attracting animals to the area with food and then calling them a nuisance, that is the root of the problem," said Nicole Matthews, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Ivar's management didn't return calls for comment about the sign.
Of course, none of this may offer much help to the state troopers under investigation.
"The key is you have to have a permit, and the method has to be approved," Gruver said.
A state Fish and Wildlife Department spokesman said the investigation may be finished this week.
A report then will be sent to the King County Prosecutors Office for evaluation.
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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