American coots create problems on Rancho Santa Fe links

By Joe Tash

The Fairbanks Ranch Country Club and its 27-hole golf course are home to some 150 different types of wildlife, including golden eagles, hawks, mallards and ospreys. But one species in particular, the American coot, a black water bird with a distinctive white beak, causes major headaches.

“We’re dealing with a sanitation issue,” said Steve Wittert, general manager of the private club, which is on San Dieguito Road in Rancho Santa Fe. The migratory coot population, which can number in the thousands of birds each year, defecates on golf course greens and tee areas, making a mess and triggering complaints from club members.

“There is pressure from all of our members to try to move the coots to areas that are out of play,” said Wittert.

The problem is so bad that the club has applied for and received a “depredation permit” from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which allows the use of lethal means to dispose of up to 350 coots per year. The club also has tried, and continues to use, a variety of non-lethal means to keep the coots away from high-traffic areas of the course, Wittert said.

Club personnel use shotguns to kill the birds during their winter and spring migratory season, generally from November through April, and notify law enforcement each time, Wittert said. The blasts take place once a week or so, in the early morning, and have prompted sporadic complaints from neighbors. The San Diego Humane Society and SPCA have also criticized the practice.

“We’re just trying to maintain a balance between happy members and a sanitary environment and happy neighbors. And it’s not the easiest balance at all times,” Wittert said.

Rick Emmerson, who lives on a bluff in the Rancho Del Mar neighborhood above the 274-acre country club, said he has been hearing the early morning gunshots for several years, and has spoken to club officials about it. He said the club was cooperative in agreeing to conduct its coot eradication efforts slightly later in the morning.

Along with the noise, Emmerson said he is concerned about possible fire danger from the shotgun blasts, as well objecting on humanitarian grounds.

“I don’t think there’s any good reason for a death sentence to be issued when there are non-lethal means available” to control the birds, Emmerson said.

Emmerson contacted the San Diego Humane Society, which researched the issue and determined there were no regulations prohibiting the practice of shooting coots, said spokeswoman Kelli Schry.

“Unfortunately, as terrible as it is there’s nothing we can do to regulate it,“ said Schry. “We would absolutely encourage using non-lethal methods. We don’t encourage any kind of harm to any animal, domestic or wildlife.”

Eddie Owens, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sacramento office, said a number of golf courses in San Diego and Riverside counties have depredation permits issued by his agency, specifically regarding American coots.

The permits are good for one season, and must be renewed each year. Golf courses and other property owners that obtain permits must demonstrate they have used and continue to use non-lethal means to control the birds, and that killing the birds is a last resort, Owens said.

“You must have a wildlife hazard management plan in conjunction with this depredation permit. This isn’t just a permit you can get and go on a shooting spree, you must have a program that utilizes a variety of non-lethal techniques in conjunction with your lethal removal,” Owens said.

The Fairbanks Ranch Country Club has received a depredation permit to kill American coots for all but about three of the past 13 years, Owens said.

Wittert said the club has spoken to a university professor to learn about the coot, and conducted its own research.

“We have tried everything that has been available that we’ve ever read about,” said Wittert, including dogs, falcons, pyrotechnics, scarecrows, mylar balloons, pictures of coyotes, and remote-control boats and airplanes. “None of them has been effective.”

Along with the eradication efforts, on any given day, up to six club employees are assigned to walk toward the coots and shoo them away from playing areas and toward the water. ”You can imagine how expensive that is,” he said.

The coot population — which is not an endangered species, according to Owen — varies from year to year, but has been particularly bad in recent years, Wittert said. Some 5,000 birds migrated to the golf course last year, and this year’s population is about 1,000 birds. Owens said the numbers may be down due to a relatively mild winter in Northern California, so the birds don’t migrate as far south.

Wittert said Fairbanks Ranch isn’t the only local course dealing with the birds. The superintendent of one local course, who asked not to be named, said his course does have issues with coots and their feces, but does not have a depredation permit. Officials at other North County courses did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Fairbanks Ranch prides itself on environmental stewardship, and has been certified by the Audobon Society for water conservation, wildlife and habitat management and environmental planning, said Wittert.

Emmerson said he understands the club’s need to deal with the sanitary issues caused by the coots, but urged the organization to use only non-lethal methods in the future.

Wittert responded: “We will use the means that are legally available to us.”