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
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
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