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My View: Killing cormorants is senseless slaughter

By By Bob Sallinger
Portland Tribune

In a matter of days the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could begin killing thousands of double-crested cormorants at East Sand Island at the mouth of the Columbia River. Their crime: doing what comes naturally, eating fish.

In a matter of days the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could begin killing thousands of double-crested cormorants at East Sand Island at the mouth of the Columbia River. Their crime: doing what comes naturally, eating fish.

The Corps is scapegoating the birds for Columbia River salmon declines even as it refused to address the primary cause of decline, the manner in which it operates and manages the Columbia River Hydropower System.

The Corps has been fighting in federal court for more than a decade to avoid new modifications and reverse existing modifications to the dams that are needed to recover federally listed salmon and steelhead. Now they want to blame the birds.

The proposed slaughter harkens back to the darkest days of wildlife management — days that modern wildlife management should have left far behind. Boat-based federal agents plan to kill more than 10,000 double-crested cormorants using shotguns as the birds forage for food over water. Snipers with night-vision goggles and high-powered rifles will shoot birds on their nests on East Sand Island at night from elevated platforms as the birds care for their eggs and young.

The Corps also plans to destroy more than 26,000 double-crested cormorant nests through oiling of eggs, egg failure, and starvation of nestlings whose parents have been shot.

Because the agencies waited until so late in the season to issue permits, they have ensured that the peak of killing will coincide with the peak of nesting season when nests will be full of young cormorants and the killing of adults will result in the greatest amount of suffering and starvation of young. In total, the Corps plans to kill 15 percent of the entire population of double-crested cormorants west of the Rocky Mountains.

Contrary to Corps assertions that double-crested cormorant populations have “exploded” in recent decades, in fact, today western double-crested cormorant populations are an order of magnitude smaller than they were historically. They are declining throughout much of their range and two of the three largest colonies in the west at the Salton Sea and Klamath have collapsed.

In an expanding web of persecution, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife recently announced that it plans to aggressively haze cormorants at six estuaries along the Oregon Coast and produced maps designating nearly the entire state of Oregon as off-limits to cormorant population growth. East Sand Island is the one place in the West where cormorants are doing well.

We do not use words like “slaughter” lightly, but it is appropriate here; the proposed action is simply ecologically irresponsible, inhumane and wanton.

It also is unnecessary. The Corps, in its environmental impact statement required under federal law to initiate this action, failed to even consider modification of dam operations as an alternative to killing cormorants, failed to produce any science demonstrating that killing birds would result in increased returns of adult salmon, and failed to meaningfully evaluate nonlethal dispersal strategies of cormorants from the colony.

The Corps principal investigator on East Sand Island for more than a decade wrote a scathing evaluation of the EIS, stating: “There are aspects of the DEIS and the selection of the preferred alternative that are either unsupported by the science, or at variance with the best available science. In many cases the relevant science was produced by the research group that I lead.”

This is not about birds versus salmon. Portland Audubon has advocated for salmon habitat restoration on the Willamette and Columbia rivers, restored salmon habitat in our sanctuary on the Oregon coast, and has a lawsuit in federal court to ensure that FEMA takes adequate steps to protect salmon when it allows floodplain development.

It is time for the Corps to focus on the real causes of salmon decline and make long overdue modifications to the federal hydropower system rather than waste millions of taxpayer dollars killing native birds that have coexisted with salmon since time immemorial. Killing thousands of cormorants and intentionally driving them to levels that the agencies themselves have defined as unsustainable will not recover salmon, but it could jeopardize cormorant populations.

The Audubon Society of Portland is committed to the recovery of federally listed salmon, but supports science-based strategies that address the primary causes of decline including dams, habitat loss and hatchery fish, not the wonton slaughter of fish-eating birds for simply doing what comes naturally.

Audubon, Center for Biological Diversity, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Friends of Animals, and Wildlife Center of the North Coast represented by Earthrise Law Center have brought suit in federal court to stop the slaughter.

Bob Sallinger is the conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. Reach him at: bsallinger@audubonportland.org

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