Washington, DC — Wildlife management by eradication will take a giant step forward under plans just announced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to wipe out nearly one-third of the entire population of double-crested cormorants in Western North America, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Corps wants the fish-eating birds shot en masse to reduce loss of juvenile salmon and steelhead as they venture to sea from the Columbia River.
Today, more 40% of all double-crested cormorants in the West nest at Sand Island, the only place on the Pacific Flyway where their population is steadily growing. Dams along the Columbia-Snake River system block natural migration of fish. So, large hatchery populations of otherwise endangered salmon and steelhead are released from the lower reaches of the Columbia. This piscine smorgasbord has drawn growing populations of fish-eating birds, such as the Caspian tern, brown pelicans and cormorants to Sand Island, in the Columbia Estuary five miles from the Pacific.
The Corps wants to reduce the population of an estimated 15,000 nesting pairs of double-crested cormorants on Sand Island by nearly two-thirds. To do so, the Corps will engage teams of shooters from Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for dispatching wildlife deemed economic nuisances. This plan’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) posted last week:
- Envisions converting blinds and tunnels used for many years by scientists to monitor the largest rookery of its kind in North America into killing platforms;
- Requires marksmen shooting with silencers and night-vision scopes to kill several hundred birds each night during the two weeks between when the cormorants arrive on the Island and when they start laying eggs.
- Does not explain how marksmen would exact this heavy toll without disturbing other fish-eating birds nesting on the Island, such as Brant’s cormorant, whose nests are intermingled with their double-crested cousins, or the world’s largest colony of endangered California brown pelican; and
- Offers no clear plan for how to dispose of thousands of carcasses on the low-lying 50-acre tract.
“Frankly, this is a crazy, crude and needlessly cruel plan that should go right back to the drawing board,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that this would be the largest culling operation of its type ever undertaken. “This operation represents an extreme militarization of wildlife management. Cormorants do not need to be treated like terrorists simply because they eat fish.”
For the most part, however, the Corps has eschewed non-lethal alternatives. For example, last year the toll on fish from Caspian terns abated after its available nesting habitat on Sand Island was cut by about a third. On Oregon state lands, hazing prevents the birds from nesting near hatchery migration routes. In addition, oiling one or more eggs in a cormorant nest will shrink the population year-by-year. The Corps is not pursuing these alternatives, in part due to bureaucratic impatience, and in part because the Corps does not know where displaced cormorants would relocate.
“Managing these conflicts is a job for scientists, not snipers,” Ruch added, noting that the double-crested cormorant is the only fish-eating species singled out for large scale elimination. “Instead of the quick and final solution the Corps desires, this latest ad hoc action will trigger another yet set of unintended consequences from trying to artificially engineer a natural balance.”
East of the Mississippi, a much larger (by ten times) population of double-crested cormorants are subject to state-managed “Depredation Orders” which have just been renewed for a five-year period through 2019. These orders allow take of the birds to protect commercial and recreational fish populations but do not remove anywhere close to the percentage of total population that the Sand Island plan would extirpate.