Ignored own study in pushing cormorant massacre
PORTLAND, Oregon––Obtaining U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service research showing that killing cormorants near the mouth of the Columbia River would have no beneficial outcome for salmon and steelhead, the Audubon Society of Portland, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of Animals, Animal Legal Defense Fund and Wildlife Center of the North Coast on August 12, 2015 asked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to withdraw the permits authorizing the killing, and to undertake internal investigation as to why the agency ignored its own science.
“This analysis was withheld during the public process that resulted in the decision by federal agencies to kill more than 10,000 double-crested cormorants and destroy more than 26,000 nests, and directly contradicts assertions made in the Environmental Impact Statement and Records of Decision,” charged the Audubon Society of Portland and four co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to stop the cormorant killing.
“Heart aches for all the birds”
Withholding the research “fundamentally undermines the integrity of the public process and the validity of the permits [to kill cormorants] that were issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” the five plaintiff organizations said in a joint statement, signed by Audubon Society of Portland conservation director Bob Sallinger.
Charged Center for Biological Diversity attorney and biologist Collette Adkins, “Dead set on killing cormorants, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ignored its own science. My heart aches for all the birds who have needlessly suffered and died. The killing needs to stop now.”
“Confirms what we’ve argued for years”
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife found that “efforts to reduce predation by double-crested cormorants are expected to result in no changes or benefits to these fish populations in terms of increasing adult returns or abundance,” whereas “efforts to reduce mortality during passage through the hydro system are expected to result in increased productivity and abundance of steelhead.”
Said Sallinger, “The Service’s analysis confirms what we’ve argued for years. The federal agencies responsible for recovering endangered fish should take steps to save salmon and steelhead by improving federal dam operations rather than making native birds the scapegoats for human-caused declines in Columbia Basin salmon runs. This is a senseless slaughter. The government knew it and chose to conceal this information during the public process.”
“So far this year,” Salinger added “federal agencies have killed more than 100 adult birds and destroyed thousands of nests, with more killings planned.
Judge allowed killing to proceed
The damning documents emerged during the process of discovery after U.S. Federal District Judge Michael Simon on May 8, 2015 allowed Audubon Society of Portland and co-plaintiffs to continue litigation meant to stop the cormorant massacres at East Sand Island, but meanwhile authorized 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 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.
Lacked compensatory data
The plaintiffs hoped to win a temporary restraining order that would prevent the bird massacre from proceeding, but Judge Simon denied the request.
Plans to kill cormorants at East Sand Island were already well advanced, show the minutes of two U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff meetings held in September 2014, when the assembled personnel realized that they had no data showing whether cormorant predation on salmon and steelhead is “additive” rather than “compensatory.”
“Additive” predation means that the predator kills prey who otherwise would escape to reproduce, thereby contributing to population growth.
“Compensatory” predation means that if one predator does not kill the prey, another––or several others––almost certainly will.
Reported U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Steve Haeseker on March 16, 2015, after several months of study, “The effectiveness of actions to reduce predation by double-crested cormorants depend on the degree that predation by double-crested cormorants is additive versus compensatory. If the cormorant-induced mortality is additive, as is assumed, then reductions in predation are expected to result in increased population productivity and adult abundance through efforts to reduce the cormorant-induced mortality.
“However, if the cormorant-induced mortality is compensated-for by commensurate reductions in mortality from other sources,” Haeseker continued, “then population productivity and adult abundance will be unaltered by efforts to reduce cormorant-induced mortality.
“No effect on Snake River steelhead”
“Snake River steelhead have been identified as the species that has experienced the highest estimated levels of cormorant-induced mortality and are assumed to benefit most from cormorant culling efforts,” Haeseker wrote. Using three, long-term (1998-2009) data sources on Snake River steelhead (fish transported from Lower Granite Dam, fish detected at Lower Granite Dam, and fish detected at Bonneville Dam), we conducted statistical tests to determine whether cormorant predation on steelhead was an additive or compensatory source of mortality. We also evaluated cormorant-induced mortality within the context of other factors (e.g., water velocity, spill levels, and ocean conditions) that have been shown to influence smolt-to-adult survival rates.
“For all three data sets, statistical tests supported the hypothesis that cormorant-induced mortality was completely compensatory…As a consequence, efforts to reduce cormorant predation on steelhead are expected to have no effect on Snake River steelhead population productivity or adult abundance. Since Snake River steelhead were most likely to benefit from reductions in cormorant-induced mortality but showed none, benefits to other species are also unlikely.”
Noted Haeseker, “Double-crested cormorants are but one of many piscivorous predators who consume juvenile salmonids. Other known predators of juvenile salmonids include Pacific hake, jack mackerel, chub mackerel, spiny dogfish, adult salmonids, walleye, northern pikeminnow, pinnipeds, Caspian terns, brown pelicans, sooty shearwaters, common murre, mergansers, gulls, belted kingfisher, grebes and loons, herons, osprey, and bald eagles.”
“In your face”
Commented Barry Kent Mackay, illustrator of The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah, by Linda R. Wires, “You might also want to look at the reports that about half the adult sockeye salmon in the Columbia River expired prematurely from the effects of water temperature, which, of course, has nothing to do with cormorants (<http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/7/27/half-of-columbia-rivers-sockeye-salmon-dying-due-to-heat.html>).
“I was photographing double-crested cormorants just yesterday,” Mackay added, “and I think part of the problem is that they are just so damn ‘in your face,’ so obvious. To me they are joyous creatures. I never tire of looking at them, but I understand that they are almost tailor-made to be an obvious, if inappropriate, scapegoat for all our own failures to protect the environment, and fish stocks.”
(See also “Conservation gets the bird at East Sand Island,” “California sea lions, starving in their rookeries, take heat for salmon losses,” and “The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah.” )