Elaine Thompson / AP

Govt to cull 10,000 cormorants to protect Columbia River salmon

Critics blame hydroelectric dams, not the birds, for significant salmon decline

In an effort to protect endangered salmon species, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Thursday that it has begun culling double-crested cormorants and terminating their eggs on East Sand Island, located in the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon states.

The “Cormorant Management Plan” has so far resulted in the culling of 109 adult cormorants, an aquatic fish-eating bird species, and the targeting of 1,769 nests, the Corps said in a statement.

Members of the Corps have been instructed to shoot adult cormorants and oil their nests — a process in which eggs are submerged in oil to prevent oxygen from reaching the developing embryos, and then returned to their respective nests so that mother birds do not lay new eggs, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

In total, the Corps plans to cull 10,000 birds within four years.

The cormorant population on East Sand Island has exploded in recent decades, growing from 100 pairs in 1989 to about 15,000 pairs in 2013 — making it the largest breeding colony for the birds in North America, the statement said.

The cormorants, which prey on juvenile salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), have hit the Columbia River’s salmon population, the Corps contends.

Earlier this year, the Corps published an Environmental Impact Statement and culling plan based on nearly 20 years of research of the birds’ impact on salmon. After a period of public review, the FWS gave the Corps a depredation permit to cull the birds.

In 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a mandatory action to protect ESA salmon by improving fish passages at dams, cultivating their habitats, and managing predator populations, the Corps noted in its statement.

But critics and conservationists have questioned the culpability of the cormorants, and instead blamed the Columbia River’s hydroelectric dams for pushing salmon towards extinction.

To stop what they called a "slaughter," the Audubon Society of Portland filed a lawsuit in April along with four other animal and conservation organizations against the Corps, the FWS and the USDA Wildlife Services, the group said in an April 20 statement.

The suit alleges that the cormorants are merely scapegoats for the salmons' decline while the real threat is mismanagement of the federal hydropower system.

“This is not about birds versus fish,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland. “The Corps and other federal agencies have proposed rolling back dam operations that benefit salmon while at the same time targeting thousands of cormorants."

"Blaming salmon declines on wild birds that have coexisted with salmon since time immemorial is nothing more than a diversion,” he added.


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