Golf: Facing nature with a club
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2000:
SEAL BEACH, AUBURN, SANTA BARBARA, California; LAKEWOOD, Colorado––Already poisoning cottontail rabbits at the Leisure World golf course in Seal Beach, the exterminating firm California Agri-Control in early May asked the Seal Beach Police Department for permission to shoot rabbits as well. Seal Beach police chief Mike Sellers on May 9 refused to waive the city policy against firing guns within city limits––which meant that the poisoning would continue.
In Defense of Animals offered to relocate the rabbits to a privately owned 40-acre site near Lake Elsinore, without much hope that the offer would be accepted.
“In 1992, an offer to relocate rabbits” from Leisure World “was rejected by the California Department of Fish and Game,” IDA representative Bill Dyer said. “Yet for $40,000, the cost of building one green” claimed by Leisure World, “all of the rabbits could be trapped, sterilized, and released.”
Dyer blamed the alleged overabundance of rabbits at Leisure World on “the killing of red foxes and coyotes, who are natural predators of rabbits, at the nearby U.S. Naval Weapons Station and wildlife refuge.”
The red foxes and coyotes were purportedly targeted to protect the endangered clapper rail.
The Leisure World situation blew up less than a week after Katy Thach of Lakewood, Colorado, made media aware that the city of Lakewood had just quietly poisoned an estimated 1,500 prairie dogs on 50 acres of land that the city has reportedly slated for development into a golf course. The poisoning allegedly began after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined on February 3 that blacktailed prairie dogs are eligible for protection as a threatened species, but put off taking any protective action.
Utah prairie dogs were already federally protected. That didn’t save more than 350, however, who were mysteriously poisoned last summer at the Cedar Ridge Golf Course in Cedar City, Utah. The poisoning occurred soon after biologists Ted Owens of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Teresa Bonzo and Keith Day of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources began formally monitoring the colony. The course management denied involvement. The Cedar City Police Department and Iron County Sheriff’s Department refused to investigate the case, and a Fish and Wildlife Service reward of $1,000 for informaton leading to the arrest and conviction of the responsible persons apparently produced no suspects.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in late 1999 authorized a cull of 1,000 American coots at the La Cumbre Golf and Country Club in Santa Barbara, California.
The killing began in December, attracting complaints from witnesses who alleged that coots were treated with unnecessary violence after being netted for gassing. The cull was suspended in January after the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count found only 1,147 coots in the entire vicinity, of whom just 400 were at the golf club.
The 1998 count found 1,481 coots nearby. Santa Barbara resident Jon Hanlon had threatened legal action against the coot-killing, based on the Audubon findings.
The suspended cull was just the most recent of many Southern California golf course coot massacres. In 1998, for example, coots were killed by the hundred at the Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach and the Tijeras Creek Golf Course in Orange County.
There won’t be any 1999 Christmas Bird Count data to upset authorities in the vicinity of the East Bay Golf Course, at Provo, Utah: more than a dozen hunters authorized by city officials to shoot waterfowl on the course completely disrupted the counting, carried out at the East Bay location since 1970.
Finding a legal way to kill Muscovy ducks is reportedly an ongoing problem at the Costa del Sol golf course in Doral, Florida, and for others in the vicinity whose managers may be less inclined to discuss the matter.
Predators and egg-thieves who control burrowing rodents, rabbits, and waterfowl are apparently no more welcome at many courses than the so-called nuisance species.
In March 2000, for example, someone poisoned feral cats with antifreeze at the Twelve Bridges Golf club in Auburn, California, alleged Friends of Placer County Animal Shelter president Rosemary Freiborn via Internet postings.
Twelve Bridges spokesperson Kim Jones asserted that, “No one at Twelve Bridges authorized, approved, condones, nor was aware that this was happening,” but acknowledged “working with animal control…regarding the problem with feral cats.”
Predator extermination at the Pine Hills Golf Course in Hinckley Township, Ohio, came to public notice in September 1999 only after neighbor Thomas Yatsko called police to complain about midnight bursts of gunfire, while another neighbor, Jeff Radin, 38, claimed that a stray shot had done $1,500 worth of damage to his home as his three children slept inside. Pine Hills golf pro Steve Brytwa told Cleveland Plain Dealer reporters Stephan Hudak and Debra Dennis that the club was trying to kill raccoons, who sometimes dig for grubs on the greens.
Fairways and fowl
Raccoons are one leading natural brake on Canada goose populations. Coyotes and red foxes also do the job effectively, as a red fox family demonstrated in 1997 at the East Potomac Golf Course in Washington D.C., making page one of The Washington Times amid public protest over other forms of goose control in the D.C. area. But raccoon and fox rabies panics, together with widespread fear and hatred of coyotes, has ensured that if other courses are encouraging predators, they are not making their policies known.
Canada geese and whitetailed deer, also preyed upon by coyotes, are the wildlife other than burrowing mammals who are most often targeted at golf courses. Both are present because of wildlife management policies designed to favor hunters.
The deer are among the progeny of herds whose gender ratios are as far out of balance after each year’s hunting season as 20 females to one buck in some places, as result of decades of allowing hunters to shoot far more bucks. As each female can produce two fawns, herds grow at many times the replacement rate, and have long since extended their range into suburbs––where hunting pressure is less intense, lawns and ornamental shrubs offer forage, and golf course wooded areas are among the most available cover.
Deer mostly found their own way to golf courses––although the environment ministry in British Columbia did quite deliberately introduce elk to the vicinity of the Pender Harbour Golf Course in 1987, where many golfers are now clamoring for their removal.
Anticipating hunting opportunities, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies have for nearly 50 years collaborated to introduce nonmigratory giant Canada geese to as many urban and suburban green spaces with ponds as possible.
Though the reintroduction program has lost momentum over the past decade, due to growing public discontent with resident geese, it continues––for example, as part of an Iowa Division of Natural Resources plan to double the number of resident geese in Iowa.
Thousands of golf courses were and are among the goose reintroduction sites, and the giant geese have found and colonized thousands more on their own. Nonmigratory Canada geese are now believed to inhabit more than 10,000 of the 14,500-plus golf courses in the U.S., most of which appear to regard the geese as a nuisance.
Otherwise resembling their smaller migratory cousins, the introduced geese are almost impossible to lastingly chase off because they fly just a few miles at most, and typically circle back to favorable habitat as soon as an apparent threat departs. They pull up grass, tend to poop their average of 1.17 ounces apiece per day on greens and fairways, pollute water traps, and distract golfers in mid-putt or swing with raucous honks.
Golfers and greenskeepers typically just want rid of giant Canada geese, by almost any means possible. Goose-chasing dogs are out, however, despite having demonstrated their non-lethal efficacy in 1997 trials supervised by Chris Champine of the Humane Society of the U.S. at the Wildwood Green Golf Club in Raleigh, North Carolina. The problem is that dogs chase geese by running and barking at them––and that too breaks golfers’ fragile concentration.
Air Combat Command environmental officers stationed at Langley Air Force base wanted to rid the base course of geese so badly that they rationalized the June 1989 roundup and slaughter of 189 geese as an air safety measure. However, reported William H. McMichael of the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia, after receiving a leaked stack of e-mail from an unidentified source about one month later, “Messages exchanged by base officials appear to be focused solely on the impact of the geese on golf course operations. None of the messages contains a word about flight safety. None is addressed or copied to flight safety officials.”
Goose hatred prevails even at the ironically named Goosepond Colony Golf Course, in Scottsboro, Alabama, where public protest stopped a scheduled goose hunt in January 1995.
Golf course management usually accepted goose introductions on the promise that after flocks grew, the courses could collect access fees from hunters during the golfing off-season. However, the development of sophisticated course drainage, tougher grasses, and rolled sod for quick replacement of divots has now extended “golf season” from the first warm days of spring to the last days of fall, overlapping both the spring and fall waterfowl hunting seasons.
Golfers and hunters do not easily share habitat––and even if they did, densely populated suburbs have often grown up around country clubs. Their residents rarely appreciate early-morning shotgun blasts and hails of birdshot over their patios.
Relatively few goose massacres have been prevented by protest, however, as was the one at Scottsboro. More often the neighbors find out about the killing after the gunfire begins. For example, the East Bay Golf Course in Provo, Utah, was forced to halt a goose hunt in December 1999 after shotgun pellets shattered glass at the nearby Crystal Canyon software company.
The giant Canada goose introductions have chiefly benefited the professional hunters and trappers at USDA Wildlife Services, formerly the Animal Damage Control division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Though still killing mainly coyotes, Wildlife Services has now built a lucrative side business by killing “nuisance geese” at sites throughout the Atlantic states, the upper midwest, and the Pacific northwest.
Canada geese and other wildlife are also sometimes killed to sanitize athletic fields, swimming pools, and general-use parks. But those green spaces tend to be used by humans at far greater density than golf courses, and direct contact with the ground or water is more integral to what goes on there.
A golfer playing strictly by the rules can by contrast complete a double round of 18 holes without ever coming within 200 yards of anyone not in his or her own foursome, and without ever touching a ball except to tee off and to remove the ball from the cup to tee off again after reaching each hole. Contact with the ball and ground otherwise occurs only at the end of a three-to-four-foot-long club.
The ball flies over most of the fairways––over the animal droppings which originally were among the routine obstacles that golfers expected to have to avoid.
But golf during the early 20th century lost most resemblance to the ancient pastime of Scots crofters, who used their walking sticks to whack a leather ball over sheepgrazed greens-wards and into the mouths of rabbit holes.
Most golfers no longer expect to find animals contributing even indirectly to the difficulty of the game––though they may be happy enough to claim animal help, as Mike Wisgard, 46, of Richmond, Surrey, did in September 1998 at the Queen’s Park course in Bournemouth, England. Wisgard was struggling in his approach to the 10th green when a crow pushed his ball 30 feet in front of two human witnesses, and nudged it into the cup to give Wisgard a par-four.
More often golfers claim rights to move balls because of alleged animal disturbance to the course. Often that brings an argument. For that reason, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, as ultimate arbiter of golfing rules worldwide, in January 2000 ordained that golfers may no longer move their balls from any animal hole other than those made by burrowing animals who “make a hole for habitation or shelter.” Holes made by dogs, deer, and other surfacedwelling species are specifically excluded.
There are still sheep on some golf courses, like the Cheviot Golf Club near Christchurch, New Zealand. The Cheviot flock drew public notice––as a quaint oddity––in October 1999, when farm manager Stuart Ballagh was fined $350 for castrating a neighbor’s ram. Golf club committee member and professional sheep-shearer Des Fitsgibbon brought the whole club management style into some disrepute when he reportedly grumbled to the Christchurch Press that Ballagh could have just “cut the ram’s throat, thrown it in an offal hole, and no one would have known.”
Sheep were the major source of revenue for golf course proprietors as recently as 100 years ago. Though skilled golfers have competed for betting money for as far back as the game can be traced, on tours of courses originally all within a few days’ walk of each other in Scotland, there was little money to be made from golf except by betting and apparently no thought that there could be until after the advent of the automobile.
Fast and relatively inexpensive individual transportation enabled entrepreneurs near big cities to rent pastures to golfers more lucratively than they could pasture livestock.
The evolution of the golf-centered “country club” soon followed. Sheep were replaced by lawn mowers. Spotless white golfing shoes, de rigeur among serious players for many years, came into vogue precisely because they advertised that the wearer was above ever stepping in anyone’s dung, and could afford to play at dung-free locations.
These days, livestock anywhere near a golf course are likely to mean trouble. Five months of conflict between rancher George Williams and the Legend Trail links in Scottsdale, Arizona, for instance, flared in January 2000 when golf course security guard John Shaffer was hurt while trying to herd a bull back to Williams’ land.
Such situations often end with the farmer collecting a lucrative buy-out offer––and farmers know it. Roland Moorer IV, of Orangeburg, South Carolina, had only announced plans to build an 8,400-hog barn near the Santee National Golf Club, for example, when developer C.W. “Cholly” Clark bought him out in November 1998.
Fellow hog farmers Paul Thompson and Thomas Rosano of Stuart, Florida, may have hoped for a similar deal when approached by the Florida Club of Martin County, Ltd. in January 1998, but––with just 165 pigs between them––they didn’t have comparable leverage. Thompson, who keeps his 63 hogs on just three acres, said his land simply was not for sale. The Florida Club then sued Thompson and Rosano for allegedly creating a nuisance by playing excessively loud country music. A February 2000 judicial ruling in Thompson and Rosano’s favor, under right-tofarm legislation, may have considerably increased their bargaining power.
Right-to-farm legislation and agribusiness in general are especially strong in North Carolina, where the rise of the pork and poultry industries during the past 30 years coincided with dominance of key legislative committees by prominent hog and chicken growers––among them Wendell Murphy, the now retired founder of Murphy Family Farms. In 1997, however, the economic and political clout of golf trumped even agribusiness in the North Carolina legislature, as senior Republican representative Richard Morgan pushed through a bill to restrain hog industry expansion on behalf of the Pinehurst and Southern Pines golf resorts.
The power game
Golf became the sport of deal-makers, fundraisers, and power brokers soon after becoming the participant sport of preference among the managerial and entrepreneurial classes during the 1920s––the first groups of weekend athletes with the affluence to drive cars. They swiftly changed the ancient relationship of golfers to nature.
Enriched often by their success at applying standardized mass production methods to industry, or by franchising successful retail businesses, they brought to golf a drive to standardize playing conditions.
Common natural obstacles such as sand traps and ponds became artificial and symbolic. Fairways became wider and straighter. Golf courses ceased being improvised from topography and began to be designed to make more efficient use of land, often radically departing from the previous appearance of course locations.
Golfers for several generations now have mostly been people who occupationally shape conditions to their liking, and expect to be able to shape their leisure areas likewise. “Nature” might be excluded entirely from golf except that it seems to be a pschologically necessary component of the game.
This was not always realized. Forty years ago many entrepreneurs believed that by now full-scale outdoor golf would be largely abandoned in favor of “miniature golf” or “putt-putt.” Thousands of golf enthusiasts invested millions of dollars in building wholly artificial urban courses, the overwhelming majority of which boomed briefly during the 1960s and then fell idle. “Putt-putt” survives with only a limited and declining following.
Another once highly touted urban variant, “indoor golf,” was to be played in modified former industrial buildings, with floors of artificial turf and padded walls to deflect errant shots. It now seems to survive only in old newspaper clips.
Eventually market researchers figured out that golfers value not only the social aspects of the game, but also the detachment of getting out of driving range of other people, and psychologically crave not just the satisfaction of sinking a putt but also the feeling of territorial conquest that apparently comes with knocking a ball over a significant distance.
That led to the evolution of “threehole golf,” the latest urbanized form, which is really just nine-hole golf divided in thirds. It thrives mainly in places where there is not space enough to accommodate everyone willing to pay to play on a nine-hole course, or where players of limited time and/or mobility cannot play nine holes. Like nine-hole courses, three-hole courses feature “natural habitat”––and attract nuisance wildlife.
Fairways and fowl
Most of the killing, ironically, is done out of sight of golfers––because even if golfers generally demand conditions which tend to require killing animals, many do not make the connection.
Few animal rights activists golf, yet golfers are not for the most part actively antianimal. They may not disapprove of hunting and fishing, yet relatively few golfers hunt or fish much––or attend many rodeos, circuses, greyhound races, or horse races.
Instead, they spend their leisure time and income on golfing. Many also casually feed birds, other tame wildlife, and feral cats in the vicinity of golf courses, and help animals in other ways.
Paradox characterizes the whole relationship of golfers to animals––as in most other aspects of animal-and-human interaction:
• Construction of a new golf course by the San Jose Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services Department is soon to displace the six-year-old Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley, which treats more than 5,000 animals per year, but golf tournament revenues help support the Wildlife Care Center of Coral Springs, Florida, and many other wildlife centers and humane societies.
• Comic actors Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield burlesqued the frequent enmity between golfers and groundhogs in their 1980 film Caddie Shack, yet members of the Blue Hills Golf Club in Roanoke, Virginia, have made an albino groundhog their unofficial mascot since 1996.
• Frustrated golfers occasionally club to death Canada geese and other course wildlife they can catch––but John Lavin, of Norwalk, Connecticut, in May 1997 unintentionally made local headlines by using his ball retriever, 9-iron, and putter to scoop a dozen trapped ducklings out of a storm sewer.
At least once a year ANIMAL PEOPLE learns of golfers and even junior course employees speaking up for wildlife.
In 1997, for example, Edelweiss Chalet County Club member Jim Langdon, of New Glarus, Wisconsin, raised public hell–– in writing––about a hunter who shot, wounded, and failed to promptly kill three Canada geese. Although the hunter was authorized to shoot geese on the course, the Edelweiss management said he was not authorized to be there at that particular time.
In 1998, golfers and groundskeepers at the Oso Beach Municipal Golf Course in Cullen Park, Texas, reportedly mourned a six-foot alligator who used to sun himself near the 15th hole. Corpus Christi police captain Eugene Frobish shot the alligator as a possible threat to children at the nearby Cullen Middle School. The course management noted that the alligator had helped to control ducks.
Equipment manager and greenskeeper Charles Locke of the Whispering Willows course in Livonia, Michigan, in April 1999 called police after Whispering Willows golf director Gary Whitener, 61, of Farmington Hills, dispatched a Canada goose with a shotgun. Whitener claimed the goose had been clubbed earlier by another golfer.
For approximately the first twothirds of the 20th century, farms and newly built subdivisions formed barriers of cleared land around most golf courses, which kept most wildlife out.
As farms yield to more subdivisions,however, and yard growth matures to provide food and cover, urban wildlife settles in. Golf courses afford water holes, nocturnal grazing space, and room to burrow.
Though Canada geese are a prominent exception, most nonhuman golf course users hide during the day, leaving behind only tracks and calling-cards.
Animal-related maintenance problems might be accepted as just a routine cost of doing business, if not severe––but golfers also tend to aggressively if perhaps inadvertantly invade the animals’ hiding places. They trip and sometimes upset golf carts over burrows, smash balls off of hollow trees, reach into dens and nests to retrieve lost balls, and thrash aside shrubs and tall grass with a club.
Golfers are notoriously litigious, as reflected in playing rules which require that scorecards from even casual matches be signed and witnessed. Injuries associated with animal behavior tend to bring legal action, a lesson reinforced around the golfing world in March 2000 when the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia, upheld a $750,000 award to Steven Shorten, 16.
Reported Catriona Purcell of the Sydney Morning Herald, “The court found the Grafton District Golf Club, renowned for its resident red kangaroos, was negligent in failing to eliminate, reduce, or warn of the risk of injury to golfers. Shorter suffered massive facial wounds and cuts to his abdomen, back and legs when a kangaroo grabbed and repeatedly jumped on him while he was looking for his ball in bushes in October 1996.”
The Grafton District Golf Club had already killed the kangaroos suspected of committing four previous assaults on golfers, all of them apparently provoked by unwitting territorial invasion.
ESA trumps Trump
But the wild animals feared most by golf course management are endangered species. Donald Trump learned why the hard way within weeks of the scheduled fall 1999 grand opening of the Trump International Golf club near West Palm Beach, Florida. As requested by state and federal officials, Trump added 3.1 acres to the site to protect Florida gopher tortoise habitat––and ran afoul of a week-old regulation requiring developers who expand their projects to landscape their traffic separators. Complying cost Trump $45,000.
Clint Eastwood might have sympathized. In 1997 the Sierra Club sued Eastwood, trying to keep him from building an 18-hole golf course, 34 homes, and an equestrian center near Carmel, California. The Sierra Club held that the development would destroy rare coastal prairie grassland and Monterey pine savannah. Superior Court Judge Richard Silver made Eastwood’s day, however, by ruling that the development would be less harmful––contrary to Sierra Club arguments––than a 139-home tract which was earlier approved for the same site.
The Eastwood case paralleled a series of legal battles in the Coachella Valley and Santa Rosa mountains, east of Los Angeles, where the Sierra Club likewise asserted that golf courses could be more damaging to habitat than housing.
As of mid-1997, there were 91 operating golf courses in the region, with 17 more in development. The resident bighorn sheep herd had meanwhile declined from 325 in 1986 to just 95, despite the release of 72 additional bighorns by the Bighorn Institute in a futile attempt to boost reproduction.
“The battle lines over the bighorn are as unpredictable as the zigzags of a sheep trail,” wrote Diana Marcum in the L o s Angeles Times. ”Duffer and former U.S. President Gerald Ford and senior Professional Golfers Association star and big game hunter Dave Stockton sit on the board of the Bighorn Institute,” whose biggest fundraiser is an annual golf tournament.
But the Bighorn Institute, formed by trophy hunters who were in some cases also land developers, seeks to conserve a huntable surplus of just one species. The Sierra Club sees the habitat needs of that species as the key to saving tens of thousands of acres needed by many species. Developers and golf enthusiasts accordingly tend to support Bighorn Institute conservation strategies as their preferred alternative to putting land totally off limits.
Another Bighorn Institute fundraiser is auctioning the rights to name bighorn lambs. Recent high bidders have included Delores Hope, wife of comedian and golf course developer Bob Hope. The Coachella Valley situation blew up while Hope was still entangled in a 10-year battle with environmental groups over his plan to build 1,152 dwelling units and a 209-acre PGA-level course on the 2,308-acre Jordan Ranch in Ventura County.
In November 1991 Hope merged his project with a parallel scheme advanced by the Ahmanson Land Company, involving plans to build 3,000 dwelling units and two golf courses on about half of the 5,433-acre Ahmanson Ranch. Now the plan involved land described by opponents as “part of the principal habitat linkage connecting the Santa Monica Mountains, the Simi Hills, and core habitat in the Angeles and Los Padres National Forests.”
Hope and partners finally won the go-ahead to build two golf courses plus 3,050 dwelling units, commercial areas, and public facilities in 1998, at cost of dedicating 2,633 acres as permanent open space, and surrendering another 4,700 acres that Hope held in other locations for use as regional nature parks.
Hailed as a victory by conservationists, the Ahmanson deal is considered a stickup by private property advocates, and is only the biggest of many golf-related developments which have been delayed in recent years by the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and equivalent legislation abroad.
Among other cases:
• Work may begin this year on a municipal golf course in Troy, Michigan, after 83 acres were set aside in April 2000 as a preserve for spotted turtles. The discovery of one turtle delayed the job for four years.
• Construction of an $18 million golf resort designed by 1986 PGA top money winner Greg Norman at Doonbeg, County Clare, Ireland, finally got the go-ahead on April 5, 2000, after more than a year of delay caused by a lawsuit brought by Friends of the Irish Environment over the exclusion of some habitat for a protected snail species from the portions of the resort covered by a habitat management agreement.
• The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa on April 19 sued two Western Cape Province cabinet ministers for authorizing construction of a golf estate at Paradyskloof in the Stellenbosch mountains. The project has already been delayed by environmental opposition since mid-1998.
• The Marshall Creek golf development in St. Johns County, Florida, was judicially ordered in January 2000 to build tunnels to enable black bears to cross the 1,346-acre project without risk from vehicles. Northeast Florida Sierra Club conservation chair Dan Donaldson told Jacksonville Times-Union staff writer Steve Patterson that the Marshall Creek ruling will be used as a precedent in seeking similar rulings to protect wildlife corridors at other golf projects.
• Protecting habitat for 212 bird species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1997 rejected a plan by Bel-mont Develop-ment Associates to build a nine-hole golf course as a means of funding a 580-acre wildlife refuge on former Defense Department land in Prince William County, Maryland.
• The 1997 opening of a golf course built by the Lockport Township Park District, near Chicago, was delayed by last-minute studies of whether pesticide runoff might affect the Hine’s emerald dragonfly, native to the adjacent Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve.
• Building the 420-acre Pine Barrens Golf Club in Jackson Township, New Jersey, was held up for a year while researchers followed six northern pine snakes outfitted with radio transmitters to identify their critical habitat. Their findings caused the project to shrink from 36 holes to 18.
• Expansion of the Stonebriar Country Club near Frisco, Texas, was held up for some time in June 1999, after site clearing had already begun, because neighbor Bobbie McKee claimed bulldozers had destroyed an undocumented egret rookery.
• The Twin Eagles Golf and Country Club and the Bonita Bay golf course near Naples, Florida, are reportedly to lose fairway space to wetlands redevelopment in order to expand the woodstork rookery at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
• Near Fontana, California, a course in planning is to depart from convention by consisting almost entirely of sand traps between greens, in order to avoid jeopardizing habitat of the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly.
Audubon and USGA
“Golf courses themselves are wooded treasures that promote and encourage wildlife and enhance the environment,” New York state commissioner of parks, recreation, and historic preservation Bernadette Castro declared in 1996, defending a plan to add a sixth golf course to the five already operating at Bethpage State Park.
Opened in 1932 with one golf course, at a time when nature preservation was a low priority for most public land, Bethpage soon added four more courses through public works projects. The proposed sixth course would have eradicated the last undeveloped area––and last undisturbed wildlife habitat––within the park. But despite Castro’s endorsement, the plan to build a sixth course was shelved, at least temporarily.
Castro’s words echoed the stock response of the U.S. Golf Association to any complaints about golf course conduct toward animals. Along with a form letter which has scarcely changed in a decade and evades addressing specific situations, the USGA “Green Section” sends complainants publications such as their 1998 Turfgrass and Environmental Research Summary, emphasizing ways to cut herbicide and pesticide use, and Golf & Wildlife, a 1994 summary of projects included in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses.
Received from the USGA by A N IMAL PEOPLE in January 2000, in response to questions about the Southern California coot-killing, the 1998 Turfgrass and Environmental Research Summary o f f e r s information of use chiefly in maintaining greens. One section summarizes pesticide residue tests done on tadpoles by James Howard of Frostburg State University in Maryland. Some of his findings might be used to help insects, mollusks, and small amphibians, which might also indirectly help larger species who feed upon them and share their habitat––such as coots. But the volume says next to nothing about coexisting with any kind of wildlife larger than a golf ball.
Howard’s work was funded by Wildlife Links, a $200,000-a-year program supported by the USGA but administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit auxiliary to the Fish and Wildlife Service created in 1984. What it seems to do, mainly, is channel money from for-profit enterprises to academia and major nonprofit institutions whose outlook supports conventional wildlife management.
The egret on the cover of Golf & W i l d l i f e evokes the emblem of the National Audubon Society, founded in 1905. But the golf course program is in fact the central activity of a wholly separate organization, the Audubon Society of New York State, now doing business as Audubon International. Their only connection is that Audubon Society of New York State founder Ronald G. Dodson was once a National Audubon Society lobbyist. Fired along with about 30 other staffers in 1987, reportedly as part of a cost-cutting drive, Dodson incorporated ASNY soon afterward, then won a court battle with National Audubon over his use of the Audubon name.
“In 1989 Dodson met the national director of the Green Section of the USGA at a golf project in the Adirondacks. Their organizations soon joined forces,” Peter Landry of the Philadelphia Inquirer recounted in 1990.
The outcome might be described as a prototype of “greenwashing.” More than 1,500 golf courses––about 10% of the U.S. total––now participate in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program. But as Landry pointed out, while it was still just beginning, “The program relies on the golf courses to do almost everything: inventory the wildlife and topography, make proposals, and notify New York Audubon of what they have done. New York Audubon’s own brochure states, ‘No restrictions are placed on the property as a condition of participation.’”
Leigh Altadonna, then president of the Audubon Council of Pennsylvania, predicted that the Cooperative Sanctuary Program would become “an easy write-off for a golf course that wants the image of being environmentally friendly.”
Asserted National Audubon Society spokesperson Graham Cox, “What the golf courses are looking for, frankly, is to use the phrase certified by Audubon. They just want that word Audubon stamped all over it.”
Ten years later, there have been some success stories. For example, the Shawano Lake Golf Club in Shawano, Wisconsin, protected an osprey nest in a dead pine tree near its eighth hole for four years, during which the osprey fledged seven young, and then replaced the tree with a telephone pole when termites brought the tree and nest down in August 1998.
Using the same habitat replacement method, a golf course near Aspen, Colorado, has reportedly installed several telephone poles as potential hawk nesting sites, hoping that the hawks will control ground squirrels.
But the biggest associated success has been the growth of ASNY itself, which now offers parallel Cooperative Sanctuary Programs for schools, cemeteries, back yards, and businesses. Participation requires little more than payment of the registration fee.
Since 1995 the Environmental Defense Fund has promoted its Safe Harbor program as a more meaningful rival to the Cooperative Sanctuary Programs. Under Safe Harbor, introduced with an agreement to protect red cockaded woodpecker habitat near the seventh hole at the Pinehurst Resort and country Club in North Carolina, EDF cuts deals between landowners and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The gist of each deal is a pledge that the landowner will voluntarily protect or improve critical habitat for particular endangered species, if the property is not placed under legal restrictions which might impede economic use.
The million-plus acres now covered by Safe Harbor appear to far exceed the amount of land covered by the Cooperative Sanctuary Programs, and include portions of many golf courses besides Pinehurst. But Safe Harbor offers no incentive to anyone to protect any habitat unless it contains endangered species, and does not protect “nuisance wildlife” anywhere.
The value of a fox
Successful pressure on golf courses to become more animal-friendly must come ultimately from golfers, whose greens fees keep the courses operating. If and when golfers clearly favor courses that favor animals, courses will become quasi-sanctuaries, in response to market demand.
This could happen through a combination of changing demographics and astute pro-animal information campaigns directed at golfers. The age-income-and-living-status skew of the present golfing population is presently tilted in terms of economic influence toward those who reside in golf-centered planned communities This suggests that golfers tend to be much less likely than most Americans to keep pets, and to have a traditional utilitarian view of animals which Becker College president Franklin Loew points out is left over from the early 20th century, when most Americans grew up on or near farms.
But the World War II generation, Loew argues, is the last in which attitude surveys show that utilitarianism prevails. Golfcentered retirement communities are among their last bastions of territorial dominance.
Meanwhile, from 1990 to 1994, golf lost more than 3.5 million participants (14%), chiefly through death and other factors of aging. Hiking and ecotourism scored the biggest gains among the age and income brackets formerly most inclined to golf.
The economic survival of golf––a $13.5-billion-a-year industry––depends upon attracting more young participants. On average, young golfers might tend to have more animal-friendly values than their forebears, and may especially be more interested in seeing wildlife while on the course.
Many more may feel, as Jack Buettner did when a red fox mistook his ball for an egg and stole it in October 1999 at the Falls County Club in International Falls, Minnesota, that, “It’s worth more to see a fox than have a golf ball.”
Alternatively, growing numbers of golf courses might become better wildlife habitat just because fewer people are playing.
A sign of the changing times was the March 2000 decision of The Nature Conservancy to close the less-than-10-year-old Great Sand Dunes Golf Course, near Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado. The 18-hole course, which never turned a profit, was acquired more-or-less incidentally when TNC bought 100,000 acres in June 1999. Unable to find an ecologically friendly concessionaire to run it, TNC has reportedly decided to turn parts of it into nature trails, campgrounds, and an education center.