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Corp Slows Down Cormorant Culling In Columbia River Estuary Due To Nesting Birds
Posted on Friday, June 19, 2015 (PST)

The presence of double-crested cormorant nests and chicks on East Sand Island has brought the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ planned culling operations to a standstill the last two weeks.

 

The Corps received a one-year depredation permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take 3,489 double-crested cormorants and 5,879 nests, 105 Brandt’s cormorants and 10 pelagic cormorants through January 31, 2016. It must apply annually for the permit.

 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, the Corps’ contractor, began the culling operations Sunday, May 24, but since then, Wildlife Services has culled through shooting the birds just 125 double-crested cormorants and oiled 1,769 nests, far under the Corps’ 2015 goal to cull nearly 3,500 cormorants.

 

Most of the culling operation, in fact, occurred by May 28, when the Corps reported that Wildlife Services had culled 109 birds and oiled 1,769 nests (see http://www.nwp.usace.army.mil/Missions/Current/CormorantEIS.aspx for weekly information published every Thursday).

 

“The last two weeks was a period of review and adjusting operations,” said Amy Echols, spokesperson for the Corps. “Per the Final Environmental Impact Statement's chapter 5, we are currently avoiding management zones that contain nests with provisioning chicks.”

 

Provisioning is where adult cormorants are tending to or providing for their chicks. Echols said it’s too early to tell when culling operations would begin again, but they hope Wildlife Services can catch up after the nesting season is over. Even though the permit to cull is good through January 2016, once nesting is complete the birds tend to leave. One thing they won’t do, she said, is pursue birds outside the area.

 

In its lawsuit to stop the culling operations, the Audubon Society of Portland alleged that the killing could jeopardize the western population of double-crested cormorants. It also said that if culling were to occur, it should have started earlier.

 

Cormorants in the estuary begin nesting at the end of March. In order to reduce the risk to the overall colony and minimize suffering of the birds, culling should have begun before then, Audubon said.

 

“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.”

 

It appears Wildlife Services, in fact, is avoiding nesting birds and that’s why culling operations have virtually stopped. Observation of the birds, however, continues.

 

“We are looking to perform management actions in zones that contain late arriving double-crested cormorants that have not yet committed to nests,” Echols said. She added that many of the birds were still engaged in courtship displays and nest construction.

 

“We continue to monitor for the appropriate culling opportunities, given the habits and patterns of the population,” she said. “Science-based decisions help us evaluate this and as stated, opportunities didn't present themselves.”

 

The island is fenced in quadrants and the contractor tracks birds based on their activity within the fencing, including whether a bird is nesting, or in the process of building a nest, or even whether a bird they’ve been tracking loses interest in nesting, according to Echols.

 

For the first 125 birds culled, the contractor could tell through observation and aerial photography that the birds were not in a nesting pattern, she added.

 

This week the Audubon Society called on members to call the Corps and Fish and Wildlife to “tell them to stop scapegoating cormorants for salmon declines caused by the Corps’ refusal to increase river flows through the modification of dam operations.”

 

“Call-in day” was Wednesday, June 17. Information is at http://audubonportland.org/.

 

The colony of cormorants on the island increased from about 100 breeding pairs in 1989 to more than 15,000 pairs in 2013, according to the Corps, which is removing 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 juveniles 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.

 

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 lawsuit will continue as both sides have agreed on a course of action that results in final oral arguments before Judge Michael H. Simon, March 7, 2016.

 

For Background, see:

--CBB May 29, 2015, “Culling Cormorants Begins: Goal Is To Reduce 15,000 Breeding Pairs To Under 6,000 by 2018,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/434132.aspx

 

--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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