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Lawsuit filed to halt Corps of Engineers' killing of cormorants

By Shari Phiel
The Daily News

A lawsuit to block a federal plan to kill thousands of double-crested cormorants in the Columbia River Estuary is no surprise, according to federal officials.

Lawsuit filed to halt Corps of Engineers' killing of cormorants

Double-breasted cormorants feed on juvenile salmon and steelhead. TDN file

A lawsuit to block a federal plan to kill thousands of double-crested cormorants in the Columbia River Estuary is no surprise, according to federal officials.

“It’s not unexpected,” Corps spokeswoman Amy Echols said of the suit. “We’re working with our attorneys ... to determine what actions and what responses we have from this point forward.”

Echols said the corps has already begun putting fencing up on East Sand Island, near the river’s mouth, to aide them in counting the birds.

“We’ve continued some field monitoring actions, but we have not initiated any kind of lethal actions,” Echols said.

Five conservation and animal rights groups Monday sued in U.S. District Court in Oregon, naming the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agencies want to reduce populations of the black seabirds, which studies have shown gobble millions of small salmon.

According to the suit filed by the Audubon Society of Portland, Center for Biological Diversity, Wildlife Center of the Northwest, Animal Legal Defense Fund and Friends of Animals, it’s humans, not the cormorants, that are responsible for the decline of wild salmon populations.

“Sadly, over the past 20 years federal dam operators have looked virtually everywhere but in the mirror in their search for culprits to blame for the decline of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead,” the suit claims. “Without even considering an overhaul of dam operations to improve salmon survival, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has instead decided to kill thousands of native birds that have coexisted with salmon for millennia.”

Despite that assertion, the corps and other agencies have spent billions of dollars on many measures during the last quarter-century to make fish passage through the Columbia River hydroelectric system more fish-friendly. Among the measures: spilling water over the dams and installing screens to divert young salmon from hydroelectric turbines; habitat restoration projects; and improved hatchery management.

Still, the corps says reducing the number of cormorants is essential to improving salmon survival. Cormorant numbers have has grown from 100 nesting pairs in 1989 to more than 15,000 pairs now. According to a 2008 federal study, the black seabirds eat about 11 million juvenile salmon and steelhead each year, fish that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The corps says it needs to reduce the number of nesting pairs by half.

In February, the corps announced a four-year plan that will include spraying vegetable oil on cormorant eggs to prevent them from hatching, modifying parts of East Sand Island to reduce nesting habitat and shooting up to 11,000 of the birds.

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