PORTLAND, Oregon––Federal District Judge Michael Simon on May 8, 2015 allowed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and USDA Wildlife Services to go full speed ahead to kill 3,489 double-crested cormorants, 105 Brandt’s cormorants, and 10 pelagic cormorants at East Sand Island in 2015 alone, along with destroying 5,879 double-crested cormorant nests.
The bird massacre near the mouth of the Columbia River is intended to prevent predation on endangered salmon runs. The salmon runs, all parties acknowledge, have been depleted chiefly by hydroelectric dams which have for decades blocked salmon migration up the Columbia to tributaries to spawn.
Appeal for TRO denied
The Audubon Society of Portland, Center for Biological Diversity, Animal Legal Defense Fund, and Friends of Animals on April 20, 2015 filed suit against the Army Corps of Engineers Fish & Wildlife Service, and USDA Wildlife Services, seeking a permanent injunction against the killing. The Wildlife Center of the North Coast joined the case soon afterward.
With that case pending, the plaintiffs hoped to win a temporary restraining order that would prevent the bird massacre from proceeding, but Judge Simon denied the request.
“In issuing his ruling, Judge Simon stated explicitly that he was not ruling on the merits of the lawsuit,” summarized the co-plaintiffs in a May 11, 2015 joint statement. “Instead, he focused very specifically on the need to demonstrate irreparable harm, one of the requirements to obtain a preliminary injunction. Judge Simon…acknowledged plaintiff’s concerns that the lethal control activity within the nesting colony — including shooting, egg oiling, and carcass collection — could cause nest colony collapse, but refused to stop the activity because this outcome was speculative.”
Responded Audubon Society of Portland conservation director Bob Sallinger, “For the 3,489 cormorants who are scheduled to be shot and 9,368 active nests the Corps plans to oil, destroy or starve, the losses will absolutely be irreversible.”
“Scapegoating wild birds”
While the restraining order was denied, the lawsuit against culling the cormorants continues.
“Plaintiffs allege,” said their joint statement, “that the Corps is scapegoating wild birds for salmon declines while failing to adequately address the primary cause of low fish number, the manner in which the Corps operates the large federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Plaintiffs also allege that the Corps has failed to demonstrate that killing cormorants will significantly increase adult salmon returns, but the agencies’ own calculations show that the planned killing could drive western populations of double-crested cormorants below sustainable levels.”
Added Wildlife Center of the North Coast executive director Sharnelle Fee, “Blind persecution and absence of strong scientific justification amplifies the unnecessary pain, suffering and death this cormorant colony will experience.”
The dam problem
The Fish & Wildlife Service on April 13, 2015 issued a depredation permit authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to hire USDA Wildlife Services to conduct the first and most destructive phase of a three-year plan to kill cormorants.
“To satisfy requirements by National Marine Fisheries Service to protect fish runs already impacted by dams, the Corps plans to kill around 16,000 double-crested cormorants by 2018,” reported Katie Wilson of the Chinook Observer in Long Beach, Washington. “Each year, the Corps will need to reapply for a depredation permit, since the birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
“The targeted double-crested cormorants and Brandt’s cormorants actually nest on the East Sand Island,” Wilson explained, “while the pelagic cormorants fly by from time to time. All three cormorant species 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.”
The cormorant killing is “supported by other groups, including commercial and recreational fishing advocates and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission,” Wilson said.
Green lasers might enlighten the situation
But fisheries biologist Kristen Homel, Ph.D., offered an informed opposing view in an op-ed essay for Oregon Live, the online edition of the Portland Oregonian.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accidentally built productive habitat for double-crested cormorants by creating dredge-spoil islands as they were clearing shipping channels,” Homel wrote. “Now, instead of addressing this accidental habitat, they want to kill almost 11,000 cormorants over the next four years because those birds eat salmon and steelhead smolts, along with other fish species. In the first year, 3,489 adult birds will be shot as they sit on their nests and as they leave those nests to seek food for their young. Additional mortality will occur from orphaned juvenile birds starving to death in their nests.
“Multiple non-lethal methods exist to discourage double-crested cormorants from nesting in the Columbia River estuary,” Homel continued. “These birds are easily dissuaded from their nest sites by any kind of disturbance. Even just having green lasers shined on them at night will cause them to leave their nests. Dissuasion has been effective on this and other cormorant colonies. Moreover, cormorants avoid nesting in areas that are inundated at high tides; restructuring the islands to be tidally influenced could be an effective tool to dissuade birds from nesting.
“In fact,” Homel reminded, “habitat restructuring has already been very effective in dispersing Caspian terns, another fish-eating bird, in the Columbia River estuary. The Corps recognizes the effectiveness of habitat restructuring,” Homel charged, “but instead of making this a primary approach, they plan to implement it only once a significant portion of birds have been killed.”
A decade ago the Corps of Engineers labored to relocate Caspian terms from Rice Island, farther upstream on the Columbia, to East Sand Island. By 2008, as many as 10,000 pairs of nesting Caspian terns occupied East Sand Island. The concentration, believed to be about 70% of all the Caspian terms terns on the Pacific Coast, attracted gulls, who preyed so heavily on Caspian tern chicks that a few years later, in 2011, the Corps of Engineers began shooting gulls lest the terns move their nesting colony back to Rice Island. The gull-shooting was suspended in 2013.
Unclear if killing birds will help salmon
Added Homel, “The Corps of Engineers admits in their environmental impact statement that it is unclear whether killing these birds will even result in more adult salmon returning to the Columbia River to spawn in subsequent years.”
Homel pointed out that while “The hydropower system kills a minimum of 28 percent of [salmon] smolts, the cormorants eat 4.8 percent.”
Finished Homel, “Bird predation is one part of a complex picture of mortality sources. If the birds are removed, it is unknown whether something else will consume the salmon instead. Double-crested cormorants represent an easy scapegoat in the attempt to decrease salmon mortality, but overwhelmingly that mortality is the result of human-caused habitat degradation, hatcheries, harvest and hydropower.”
Sea lions, also targeted for predation on Columbia River salmon runs, meanwhile enjoyed a temporary reprieve when the Oregon and Washington state wildlife agencies on May 1, 2015 temporarily suspended culling operations at the Bonneville Dam, after killing two sea lions by accident.
Before sea lions are culled, according to protocol, they must be repeatedly seen hunting salmon and must resist attempts to haze them away, returning to the spillway area after being trapped.
The National Marine Fisheries Service in March 2008 authorized killing up to 85 California sea lions at the Bonneville Dam spillway, but implementation was repeatedly delayed and eventually limited to killing no more than 30 California sea lions per year by litigation led by the Humane Society of the U.S.
Stellar sea lions, an endangered species, were exempted.
Fifty-eight California sea lions were killed and about a dozen relocated to zoos or aquariums through 2014. Another 14 California sea lions were trapped and killed by lethal injection earlier in 2015.
Stellar sea lions have been hazed but have not yet been subjected to “selective removal,” as culling has been euphemistically called.
Sea lion stampede
The sea lion killing was interrupted, explained Steven Dubois of Associated Press, after “A malfunction caused a trap door to close with nine California and Steller sea lions inside. A 1,500-pound Steller sea lion crushed the 350- to 400-pound California sea lions, a veterinarian determined. An incident report was submitted to NOAA Fisheries, and the states temporarily suspended trapping to review operating procedures.
“A similar incident happened in May 2008,” Dubois noted, “when six sea lions died after being trapped in a cage. The design of the trap door was then changed from rope-and-latch to electromagnetic.”
(See also “California sea lions, starving in their rookeries, take heat for salmon losses,” http://www.animals24-7.org/2015/02/21/california-sea-lions-starving-in-their-rookeries-take-heat-for-salmon-losses/, and “The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah,” http://www.animals24-7.org/2014/08/04/the-double-crested-cormorant-plight-of-a-feathered-pariah/.)