Steve Ringman | The Seattle Times
Cormorants sit on East Sand Island in the Columbia River near Chinook last year.
GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Oregon officials were successful in getting permission to kill sea lions that feed on protected salmon trying to swim upriver to spawn. Now they want federal approval to shoot a type of seabird that eats millions of baby salmon trying to reach the ocean.
In an April 5 letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Wildlife Chief Ron Anglin said harassment has “proved insufficient” in controlling double-crested cormorants. He said officials want the option of killing some of the birds to protect endangered wild fish as well as hatchery fish vital to sports and commercial fishing.
Oregon needs federal approval to start shooting dozens of the long-necked, dark gray seabirds on coastal rivers because they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The letter obtained by The Associated Press was a formal request to add Oregon to the 28 states authorized to kill cormorants to protect public resources, such as game fish. The Fish and Wildlife Service is updating the authorization, which expires in 2014.
Anglin said sportsmen’s groups have been pressing the agency for years to do something about the growing numbers of cormorants, and research on the millions of salmon being eaten by the big nesting colony at the mouth of the Columbia River brought the issue to a head.
“Whether it’s logging, gravel removal or the fact we’ve had estuaries constrained through dikes and road systems and everything else, they are not naturally functioning systems anymore,” he said in an interview. “Under that kind of system, it doesn’t take much of a stressor that could have a significant impact.”
Once considered a nuisance bird, cormorants were added to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1972, the same year the pesticide DDT was banned.
Like eagles and other predatory birds, cormorant numbers started to climb. Current estimates are that about 70,000 cormorants live in the West between southern British Columbia, the Mexico border and the Continental Divide, said Dan Roby, a professor of wildlife ecology at Oregon State University who is studying the birds.
The largest nesting colony in the West is now on East Sand Island, at the mouth of the Columbia, where more than 27,000 birds are blamed for eating 22.6 million young salmon last year, 15 percent of the smolts — hatchery and wild — heading to the ocean, Roby said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is just starting work on a plan to deal with the birds.
Oregon has already shot 16 cormorants on the coast under a federal scientific permit to see how many young salmon they are eating, and is preparing an application to shoot enough cormorants on the Rogue, Umpqua and Tillamook estuaries to reduce nesting colonies there by 10 percent, said Rick Swart, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The department also pays for volunteers to harass cormorants with speedboats and firecrackers on the Tillamook, Nahalem, Hebo, Alsea and Coquille estuaries.
“This is not a population control strategy,” said department predatory bird coordinator Lindsay Adrean. “The idea is to get them to stop using those areas altogether.”
Lethal control of one species to help another is not new. Oregon kills sea lions protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act that prey on adult salmon at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Federal hunters put out poison eggs to kill crows and foxes that eat Western snowy plovers, a threatened shore bird. In the Midwest and east, cormorants are killed to protect fish such as yellow perch. And the federal government is planning to kill barred owls that have been pushing out northern spotted owls in the Northwest.
Stan Steele, a retired fish and game trooper now with the Alsea Sportsmen’s Association, said predator management has become a necessary part of restoring salmon.
“It’s not that any of us is against birds,” he said. “But we have to have balanced management.”
Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Portland Audubon, faulted the department for going ahead with a strategy of killing cormorants on the coast before they had scientific data showing it would do any good.
“We are scapegoating the species for fish declines being caused by other things,” he said. “We don’t have a holistic plan for how we are really going to deal with cormorants, if in fact we do need to deal with them.”