CRESCENT CITY – Each January, all 40,000 of the world's Aleutian geese fly from their northern home to roost just off the coast of Northern California.
Most of them land at Castle Rock, a half-mile from Crescent City, leaving en masse each morning at dawn – a spectacle enjoyed by locals and bird-watchers who travel to see the former endangered species.
Unfortunately for dairyman Blake Alexandre, they fly five miles north to eat the grass he'd rather save for his dairy cows. In one day, 35 of the 5-pound geese eat as much as one cow as they bulk up for their mid-April flight back to Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
Still, Alexandre said, it's not "us against them."
Traditional opponents – farmers and environmentalists – have worked together to find a way to live with "an endangered species that has turned into a neighborhood pest," Alexandre said.
A year after they were taken off the endangered species list, the geese are more popular than ever in Del Norte County. The annual Aleutian Goose Festival held in March attracts hundreds of bird-watchers, which brings in tourist money the remote Northern California county desperately needs.
Because there were only 800 Aleutian geese in the 1960s, their revival is a success story for the Endangered Species Act, said Rick Sermon, superintendent for Redwood State and National Park.
Each year, however, it costs the half-dozen dairies about $200,000 to repair their fields and in losses incurred when the geese keep them from using those fields, said Alexandre.
In 1994, Alexandre and his wife asked the state to let them manage a strip of land owned by the state park system between the dairies and the ocean, preparing short grass for the geese to lure them away from the dairies.
"It worked real well, exactly as planned," he said. "The only thing was that when we started there were 10,000 geese. Now there are about 50,000."
What was a bane to farmers was a cause for celebration for ecologists.
After Russian fur trappers introduced foxes to the Aleutian Islands, the geese population plummeted. For years, scientists thought the geese were extinct until they found a flock of 800 on a small Aleutian island. They were listed as an endangered species in 1967.
Kerry Ross, a field tech biologist with the California Coastal Conservancy, calls the geese's survival "one of the most incredible success stories of the Endangered Species Act."
Saving the geese has caused farmers and scientists to compromise, Ross said.
This year, four farmers set aside 600 acres for "permissive grazing, which gave the geese more of a corridor," Ross said.
In exchange, farmers can scare the birds from the fields – using all-terrain vehicles, trucks or micro-light planes – to move them to a strip of land set aside for feeding.
The geese began to leave last week, with only about 1,000 remaining yesterday, Alexandre said. The non-stop flight home takes more than two days, and a goose will lose one-third of its weight during the trip.