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Permit allows killing of East Sand Island birds to begin

By Katie Wilson
Chinook Observer

A permit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needed to proceed with its plan to kill thousands of double-crested cormorants nesting on the Lower Columbia River’s East Sand Island is now in place — and so is the first lawsuit.

Permit allows killing of East Sand Island birds to begin

Double-crested cormorants are the subject of immediate litigation and possible lethal control measures in coming weeks. Observer file photo

COLUMBIA RIVER — A permit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needed to proceed with its plan to kill thousands of double-crested cormorants nesting on the Lower Columbia River’s East Sand Island is now in place — and so is the first lawsuit.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a depredation permit April 13. The permit, valid through Jan. 31, 2016, will allow contractors to kill 3,489 double-crested cormorants and 5,879 nests, 105 Brandt’s cormorants and 10 pelagic cormorants in 2015.

On April 20, the Audubon Society of Portland, along with four other non-profit or volunteer led organizations, filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against the Corps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, which is authorized by the Fish and Wildlife Service to kill the allowed number of birds and eggs.

The society argues that cormorants are being blamed for damage to salmon runs that is actually caused by dams, and that the Corps’ management plan would cause the Western population of double-crested cormorants to dip below “sustainable levels” as defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service itself.

With the lawsuit filed, the Audubon Society of Portland will seek an injunction to put a halt this year to the Corps’ plans to cut the nesting population on the island almost in half by 2018.

“I don’t know exactly where this is going to take us,” said Amy Echols, assistant chief with the Corps’ public affairs office in Portland, about the complaint.

Bob Sallinger, the society’s conservation director, is also concerned about the timing of the culling. Peak nesting season is approaching on the island — Oregon State University researchers on the island say the first eggs are usually laid between mid-April and early May — and the Corps estimates that an additional 3,489 nestlings and eggs might die if their parents are shot and they are orphaned. A Corps spokesperson said contractors are on the island now, erecting fencing that will separate out nesting areas, but that it will be several more weeks before they begin killing the birds.

Salmon eaters

East Sand Island, close to the mouth of the Columbia River near Chinook, is a seasonal home to several bird species: cormorants, pelicans and Caspian terns. While a management plan has long been in place to deal with the fluctuating tern population, the Corps only this year established a management plan for the double-crested cormorants. That colony along with the tern colony, the Corps says, consume millions of juvenile salmonids every year.

To satisfy requirements by National Marine Fisheries Service to protect these fish runs already impacted by dams, the Corp plans to ultimately kill around 16,000 double-crested cormorants by 2018, a move supported by other groups, including commercial and recreational fishing advocates and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Each year, the Corps will need to reapply for a depredation permit since the birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

“We are deeply disappointed in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for issuing these permits,” Sallinger said in a statement last week. “The public looks to Fish and Wildlife Service to protect wild birds, not to permit wanton slaughter. …”

Opponents of the Corps’ management plan have said East Sand Island is one of the few places on the west coast where the double-crested cormorants are thriving. Meanwhile, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife went forward with plans to haze cormorants this month, interrupting their feeding patterns by driving small boats at the birds and firing at them with small pyrotechnics on the Tillamook and Alsea bays and at the mouths of the Columbia, Nehalem, Nestucca and Coquille rivers through the end of May.

Advocates of the Corps’ management plan on East Sand Island have argued that the birds are consuming too many young salmon and, if left unchecked, could devastate fish runs, especially when combined with other pressures in the environment: the large Caspian tern colony and the record number of fish-chomping sea lions and seals visiting the Lower Columbia River this year.

All three cormorant species — the targeted double-crested cormorants and Brandt’s cormorants actually nest on the island while the pelagic fly by from time to time — are included in the depredation permit, in part because all three can easily be mistaken for each other when they are flying out over the water.

Researchers and bird experts who have worked on the island and killed birds for research purposes in the past say they’ve even confused the birds before. Though contractors will not be targeting Brandt’s and pelagic cormorants, it is likely some could get caught in the crosshairs. That “incidental take” must be accounted for in the agency’s application for a depredation permit, spokespeople from the Corps said earlier this year.

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