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Culling Cormorants Begins: Goal Is To Reduce 15,000 Breeding Pairs To Under 6,000 By 2018
Posted on Friday, May 29, 2015 (PST)

A plan to cull thousands of double-crested cormorants from East Sand Island in the lower Columbia River estuary was put into motion over the Memorial Day weekend.

 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received a one-year depredation permit April 13 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to begin the culling. At that point, the Audubon Society of Portland filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop the action. Although the injunction was denied May 8 in federal court, the lawsuit will continue into 2016.  The Corps last week received a record of decision from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services describing how it will perform the work.

 

Culling by Wildlife Services began Sunday.

 

The colony of cormorants on the island has increased from about 100 breeding pairs in 1989 to more than 15,000 pairs in 2013, according to the Corps, which hopes to remove a portion of the sea birds through shooting, egg oiling and destroying nests.

 

As the populations of cormorants grew, along with populations of gulls and Caspian terns, so did the number of juvenile salmon and steelhead they eat while the fish migrate down the Columbia River on their journey to the ocean. The number is estimated to be 12 million juveniles and many are species listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

 

The Corps says it is under an ESA mandate to reduce the avian population, specifically the population of double-crested cormorants, in the lower river.

 

It said that a 2014 NOAA Fisheries supplemental biological opinion requires “the Corps to develop and implement a Cormorant Management Plan to reduce predation of Endangered Species Act-listed salmon and steelhead by double-crested cormorants in the Columbia River Estuary.

 

“Reasonable and Prudent Alternative action 46 in the supplemental BiOp requires the Corps to reduce the number of cormorant breeding pairs on East Sand Island from 14,000 to about 5,600 by 2018.”

 

The Audubon Society’s conservation director, Bob Sallinger, has said that the Corps is “scapegoating cormorants for salmon declines,” while the real problem is the “Corps’ ongoing failure to modify the manner in which it operates the Columbia River Hydropower System.”

 

“We are deeply disappointed that the Corps has chosen to move forward with this slaughter,” Sallinger said.

 

In its lawsuit with four other conservation and animal welfare groups, Audubon alleged that the killing could jeopardize the western population of double-crested cormorants. In addition, they say that if culling were to occur, it should have begun earlier.

 

Nesting begins at the end of March and it should have begun by then, according to Audubon, “to reduce risk to the overall colony and minimize suffering of the birds. By waiting until this late in the season, the Corps has increased the risk of complete colony failure and ensured that much of the killing of adults will occur when there are live chicks in the nest. This means the Corps will literally be shooting adult birds as they brood their young, and it will maximize the number of young left to starve to death in the nests.”

 

“The Corps is acting with total disregard for the welfare of the cormorants,” Sallinger said. “Given the pending lawsuit and the increased risk of colony failure and inhumane suffering inflicted on the birds by the late start of this project, we believe the only reasonable course of action is to postpone until after the lawsuit is resolved.”

 

The Corps applied for and received a one-year depredation permit from USFWS, which authorizes it to take 3,489 double-crested cormorants and 5,879 nests, 105 Brandt’s cormorants and 10 pelagic cormorants through January 31, 2016.

 

For more information about the USFWS depredation permit, visit http://www.fws.gov/pacific/migratorybirds/pdf/April%2013,%202015_Record_of_Decision_Depredation%20Permit_Double_Crested_Cormorant.pdf

 

Ultimately the Corps plan will cut the size of the cormorant breeding colony on East Sand Island – believed to be the largest in the world – to between 5,380 and 5,939 breeding pairs. The colony accounts for 98 percent of the double-crested cormorant breeding population in the estuary.

 

The Corps will need to reapply annually for a depredation permit through 2018. Diana Fredlund, spokesperson for the Corps, said that during the four years of culling it will implement an adaptive management plan watched over by a committee made up of the Pacific Flyaway Council, USFWS and the Corps. That committee will review the results of the first year’s activity at the end of the nesting season, determine if the goals were met and if changes to the plan are needed before it applies to USFWS for the second year’s depredation permit.

 

As of yesterday, Thursday, May 28, the Corps’ contractor, Wildlife Services, had culled 109 individual cormorants and oiled 1,769 nests.

 

“After the culling and nest oiling actions were complete, dispersal was limited to the management area and the birds immediately returned after the team completed its work,” the Corps said on its website (see http://www.nwp.usace.army.mil/Missions/Current/CormorantEIS.aspx for weekly information published every Thursday).

 

The lawsuit will continue as both sides have agreed on a course of action that results in final oral arguments March 7, 2016. The next benchmarks that  bring the court action up to the final oral arguments, set by U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon, are:

 

--Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment is due by 10/5/2015.

--Defendants' Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment and Response to Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment are due by 11/20/2015.

--Plaintiffs' Response to Defendants' Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment and Reply to Defendants' Response to Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment are due by 1/8/2016.

--Defendant's Reply to Plaintiffs' Response to Defendants' Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment is due by 2/12/2016.

 

For background, see:

 

--CBB May 15, 2015, “Federal Judge Allows Corps’ Cormorant Culling Plan to Proceed In Columbia River Estuary,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/434022.aspx

 

--CBB, April 24, 2015, “Conservation, Animal Welfare Groups File Lawsuit To Stop Plan To Cull Estuary Cormorants,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/433797.aspx

 

-- CBB, April 17, 2015, “USFWS Grants Corps One-Year Depredation Permit To Begin Culling Columbia Estuary Cormorants,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/433730.aspx

 

-- CBB, March 27, 2015, “Audubon Announces Intent to Sue Corps Over Plan To Cull Cormorants From Columbia River Estuary,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/433509.aspx

 

-- CBB, Feb. 6, 2015, “Final EIS Released On Reducing Estuary Cormorant Numbers; Proposes Both Shooting And Egg Oiling,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/433117.aspx

 

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