Geese, deer, and turkeys: Wisconsin municipalities partner with UW–Madison professor to manage wildlife damage

When a new subdivision was under construction in the village of Elkhart Lake in 2019, a population of Canada geese living in a stormwater pond expressed complaints.  

The geese got in the way of construction workers, became territorial when raising gaggles of goslings, and left behind a large volume of waste. Residents complained, public health risks increased, and appeal for the new subdivision decreased.  

When the League of Wisconsin Municipalities published an opportunity to work with University of Wisconsin—Madison Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist David Drake on a wildlife management project, Jessica Reilly, administrator, clerk, and treasure for the village, reached out.  

“The geese were traveling on our roadways, sidewalks, property owners’ lawns, and heading over to the local elementary school. They were causing issues in this area. They were becoming aggressive to residents who walked in the neighborhood,” Reilly said. “We were hoping to collaborate with the class to come up with a solution to the issue.”  

Drake, who is a professor in Forest and Wildlife Ecology in the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences, primarily focuses on urban ecology. This includes how humans and wildlife interact and how wildlife live and behave in urban areas. 

Drake promotes promote positive coexistence between wildlife and human beings through a resource website for municipalities and homeowners and the UW Urban Canid Project, but he said most of the questions he receives are about damage caused by wildlife. Because of his role with Extension, Drake highly values working with local Wisconsin communities and addressing these issues that can cost people time and money, cause property damage, or create health issues.  

“I always look at the world through this lens: How can we help people and how can we solve people’s problems and improve people’s lives?” Drake said.   

In the class that he collaboratively taught with support from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the US Department of Agriculture and Wildlife Services, Drake always incorporated “real life” projects. When Drake and his colleagues offered Forest & Wildlife Ecology 404: Wildlife Damage Management in Fall 2022, he worked with the League of Wisconsin Municipalities to find municipalities in the state who needed assistance with a wildlife damage issue.  

The town of Rome in Adams County and the Village of Shorewood Hills located outside of Madison in addition to Elkhart Lake answered the call. Rome was dealing with an abundance of white-tailed deer while Shorewood Hills faced conflicts with turkeys. 

Applied learning 

Throughout the semester, students in Forest & Wildlife Ecology 404: Wildlife Damage Management worked with the municipalities to assess the problem, evaluate costs, map the area of conflict, and identify species involved and all possible management options.    

“We asked the students to be judicious in figuring out which options they would recommend that would be successful to resolve, reduce, or eliminate the problem,” Drake said. 

The students’ report included a cost-benefit analysis for each option, a review of any laws related to the recommendations, and evaluation and communication plans.  

Working with the local municipalities provides students with enhanced academic experiences that prepare them for future careers. Drake said wildlife damage management is a growing field in which students have the opportunity to create their own businesses.  

“A lot of students are not exposed to wildlife damage management as a career until they come to our class. As the semester goes on, student interest grows,” Drake said. “(Wildlife damage management) is a very applied side of our profession, and a lot of students enjoy the application and problem solving.” 

Joey Willman, UW—Madison senior studying forest and wildlife ecology and cartography GIS, said this class was a favorite during his undergraduate career. He cited the partnerships with the DNR and USDA as a benefit to the course, sharing that demonstrations of equipment like rocket propelled net guns and field trips to watch a beaver dam removal were highlights.  

Willman was part of the student group that worked with Shorewood Hills to address conflicts with turkeys. The group prepared an integrated damage management approach that included several strategies. The practical nature of the course left Willman feeling ready for his career post-graduation, which he hopes will involve larger carnivores (like wolves). 

“Dr. Drake’s course was probably the most broadly applicable of any of the classes I’ve taken,” Willman said. “Leaving undergrad, I don’t feel like I’m going into the workforce into the blind. I’m feeling a lot more prepared.” 

Heather Hunt, who graduated in May 2023 with a degree in biology and a certificate in environmental studies, confirmed that her experiences in Drake’s class benefited her after graduation. She now works for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

Hunt worked on the Canada goose problem in Elkhart Lake while in Drake’s class. Not only did Hunt and her group determine what management techniques would be helpful, they also created a tiered plan based on the municipal budget, personnel, and local opinions on the issue. 

“I always knew I wanted to work in the natural resources field, and I think that this class prepared me professionally and made me more well rounded with a unique experience I could add to my resume,” Hunt said. “This project was such a positive experience as a college student inching closer to the professional world.” 

Wisconsin Idea at work  

Since the work was completed for Elkhart Lake, Reilly said the village has budgeted and implemented some parts of the plan, including modification, exclusion, repellent, and harassment techniques.   

“There appears to be a smaller goose population, since implementing parts of the plan,” Reilly said. “We have not had to use any lethal management techniques, and we are still seeing results. We have received fewer complaints from the residents, developer, and those who walk in the area.” 

In addition to the “outstanding” experience,” Reilly said a huge benefit for Elkhart Lake was that the plan did not cost the village anything.  

“Municipal budgets are tight, and we were able to receive a plan that we have been able to implement. The expertise that UW-Madison, its professors and its students were able to provide to us was tremendous,” she said, noting the valuable learning opportunities the students received. 

Through this partnership, not only did Wisconsin communities benefit from university resources, UW–Madison students gained valuable experiences and learned from local experts. This is the Wisconsin Idea in action. 

“As a state-funded university, we are here for the state and the public, and we should be able to assure the public that we can resolve problems and enhance people’s lives,” Drake said. “This was just an awesome opportunity to put all that together and put the Wisconsin Idea into practice.” 

This story was first published by eCALS. View the story here.

—Abigail Becker