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With Cormorant Nesting On East Sand Island Stalled, Boat-Based Shooting Of Birds Suspended
Posted on Friday, June 16, 2017 (PST)

After resuming culling of double-crested cormorants in the lower Columbia River estuary on April 11 for the first time this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s contractor abruptly stopped the boat-based shooting of the birds April 27 after evidence the birds weren’t nesting on East Sand Island.

 

Through that date, the Department of Wildlife Services, the Corps’ contractor, had culled 248 birds in the slightly more than two weeks since beginning active shooting of birds near East Sand Island.

 

According to a Corps management report, the birds were being scattered daily by as many as 40 bald eagles. But the cormorants hadn’t entirely left the area. Some 6,090 were seen roosting overnight on the Astoria-Megler Bridge just upstream of East Sand Island.

 

Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Portland Audubon Society, said that there always had been heavy eagle activity around the island and the cormorants then had been able to nest.

 

“It was only when they added additional pressure of shooting and egg oiling that the abandonment began to occur,” he said. “The Corps completely ignores the fact that pressure on a colony like this can be cumulative---birds that were already under pressure from eagles have also had to deal with relentless shooting, egg oiling and human disruption of their colony for a couple of seasons.”

 

It is the combined pressures on the birds that may well have made the colony much more “skittish,” he said.

 

On Thursday, June 15, in a letter to Robyn Thorson, regional supervisor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has issued a depredation permit to shoot the birds for three years running, the Audubon Society of Portland called for the Service to withdraw the permit and to wait until NOAA Fisheries completes its next biological opinion for the Federal Columbia River Power System, due in 2018. The letter was signed by Sallinger.

 

“It is time to permanently terminate this project,” the letter says. “We urge the US Fish and Wildlife Service to permanently withdraw the depredation permits that it issued earlier this year and allow the rewrite of the Columbia River Salmon BiOp, ordered by the Federal Court in Oregon, to be completed before considering next steps regarding cormorants on East Sand Island.”

 

Some 16,000 cormorants also left their nests in 2016 for reasons the Corps has not determined. At the time, Sallinger called the incident a complete collapse of the largest double-breasted cormorant colony on the West Coast and blamed the hazing and culling for the collapse. He likened that event with what is happening today at East Sand Island.

 

“Continuing to allow unnecessary pressure to be put on this colony in light of the events that have already occurred in 2016 and 2017 can only be viewed as reckless disregard for the welfare of this species and an abdication of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s responsibility to protect our nation’s wildlife,” the letter concludes.

 

The program to cull and oil nests, as well has other hazing activities to otherwise discourage the presence of cormorants in the lower Columbia River estuary is designed to protect migrating threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead smolts by reducing the cormorant population that feed upon them.

 

A Corps timeline published online at http://www.nwp.usace.army.mil/environment/cormorants/ shows nearly daily activity on the island beginning with the start of culling April 11 and through the colony’s early rebuilding May 30.

 

Culling was suspended, according to the timeline, April 27 due to “lack of colony formation on the island. Photos show daily attempts by double-crested cormorants to initiate nesting are continually interrupted by widespread disturbances by bald eagles.”

 

By May 1, some 258 double-crested and 23 pelagic cormorant nests were seen on the Astoria-Megler Bridge and another 64 double-crested cormorant nests were seen 40 miles upstream on the Longview Bridge. Nesting on the Astoria Bridge had increased to 385 double-crested and 36 pelagic cormorant nests by May 8.

 

On May 2, a dead grey whale was deposited nearby by NOAA Fisheries in an attempt to draw the eagles away from East Sand Island to allow the cormorants to begin nesting, an action that Sallinger said “defied logic.”

 

“We cannot think of any situations where agencies have sought to address avian predation issues by increasing predator attractants in the immediate vicinity of the populations they are trying to protect,” he said in his letter to the Service.

 

In addition, dead trees that the eagles used as perches on the island were removed on May 3.

 

By May 17, with just occasional harassment by eagles, cormorants were apparently comfortable enough to resume nesting on the island. Using aerial imagery, the Corps calculated that 5,422 double-crested cormorants and 997 nests were on the island.

 

However, on May 19, all the cormorants again were scared off the island, mostly by eagles. No eggs were observed in the nests.

 

As of May 30, more than 10,000 cormorants had returned to the island, despite periodic disturbances by as many as 22 eagles.

 

According to Karim Delgado, Corps spokesperson, the agency has “taken no management actions since April 27, and that we are continuing to monitor the situation,” but there is no additional information since May 30 about the condition of the cormorant colony on the island. “Right now we’re still waiting for the number of cormorants to settle.”

 

This is the third year in a row the Corps has been shooting cormorants in areas of the lower estuary (generally west of the Astoria-Megler Bridge to East Sand Island) and dousing eggs and destroying nests on the island.

 

Reducing predation on salmon and steelhead smolts migrating through the estuary on their way to the ocean is an action called for by reasonable and prudent alternative 46 of the 2014 biological opinion for Columbia River salmon and steelhead.

 

The plan calls for reducing the double-crested cormorant population in the estuary from about 13,000 nesting pairs to 5,300-5,900, all by late 2018.

 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued the Corps it’s third depredation permit March 29 (http://www.nwp.usace.army.mil/Portals/24/docs/environment/EIS/Cormorants/2017_Depredation_permit_MB62133B-1.pdf).

 

This year’s goal is to shoot 2,409 birds and addle eggs in 4,058 nests (750 nests are allowed to be destroyed). The Corps has through January 31, 2018 to complete the actions, which also includes hazing on East Sand Island as well as other dredged-material islands in the lower estuary.

 

In addition to double-crested cormorants, in 2017 the agency is allowed to take 72 Brandt’s cormorants and 7 Pelagic cormorants for depredation control purposes due to misidentification of the birds in 2017.

 

Last year the Corps came up somewhat short of its goal to cull 3,114 birds, instead culling 2,982 birds and destroying 1,092 nests through egg addling by coating eggs with 100 percent corn oil, which suffocates the growing embryo inside the shell, according to a 2016 Project Milestones and Culling Summary released by the Corps April 5 (http://www.nwp.usace.army.mil/Portals/24/docs/environment/EIS/Cormorants/2016_Actions_and_culling_summary.pdf).

 

Also see:

 

--CBB, April 28, 2017, “Third Year Of Shooting Salmon-Eating Cormorants, Oiling Nests: Goal Is To Kill 2,409 Birds,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/438803.aspx

 

-- CBB, September 9, 2016, “Court Allows Continued Culling Of Cormorants In Columbia Estuary To Reduce Predation On Salmonids,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/437461.aspx

 

--CBB, August 5, 2016, “Court Hears Oral Arguments On Killing Estuary Cormorants To Protect Juvenile Salmonids,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/437255.aspx

 

--CBB, July 1, 2016, “Plaintiffs Press Case Against Cormorant Culling In Court; 2,394 Birds Shot So Far This Year,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/437040.aspx

 

--CBB, June 17, 2016, “Is Salmon/Steelhead BiOp Driving Cormorant Culling? Not Necessarily Says Corps” http://www.cbbulletin.com/436943.aspx

 

--CBB, June 2, 2016, “Estuary Cormorants Abandon Nest, Eggs After 'Significant Disturbance;' Audubon Blames Feds' Hazing,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/436828.aspx

 

--CBB, May 13, 2016, “Corps More Than Two-Thirds Complete In Killing Over 3,000 Estuary Salmonid-Eating Cormorants,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/436716.aspx

 

--CBB, April 1, 2016, “For Second Year, Corps Issued Permit To Cull Cormorants In Lower Columbia; Allows Killing 3,216 Birds,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/436360.aspx

 

--CBB, October 2, 2015, “Corps Increases Cormorant Culling In Recent Days; Killing Opportunities Ending Soon As Birds Disperse,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/435133.aspx

 

--CBB, August 14, 2015, “Audubon Releases Internal USFWS Report Questioning Whether Culling Cormorants Improves Fish Survival,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/434741.aspx

 

--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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