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Relocation Scheme for Terns Hits Snag

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, March 16, 2000

Don't think that Caspian terns will leave the lower Columbia River without a fight.

Not with Southwest Washington politicians and two state agencies shunning an effort to lure some of the voracious birds north to Grays Harbor. And not with the threat of a lawsuit to keep federal river managers from doing much at all this year.

The conundrum over the salmon-eating terns only got more complicated Wednesday when researchers told the Northwest Power Planning Council they probably can't begin moving the world's largest Caspian tern colony out of the Columbia River mouth for political reasons.

"This matter gives me a migraine," said John Etchart, a Montana member of the power council, which met Wednesday in Richland.

No wonder. The problem seems to defy solution.

"It's sort of like pushing a balloon," said Larry Cassidy Jr., power council chairman from Washington. "You push it one place, and it comes out another."

Starting in two weeks, about 20,000 terns will return to nesting grounds near the mouth of the Columbia, where they have feasted for years on millions of salmon now protected by the federal government. The terns' favorite spot is Rice Island, 230 acres of dredge spoils.

Last year's efforts to move the birds farther downstream where they eat fewer salmon worked to a point, but the power council is demanding better results. The new plan relies on harassing terns until they move off Rice Island and setting up prime habitat for them on East Sand Island downstream.

The power council also told biologists to restore tern colonies to coastal sites where they lived before they discovered the big salmon buffet on the lower Columbia.

Project leader Dan Roby of Oregon State University told the council efforts are well under way and could save 3 million to 6 million smolts this year.

Everything seems to be in place, he said, except the bit about relocating the terns to old habitat such as Grays Harbor. That involves creating attractive tern habitat, typically sandy, predator-free beaches.

Such an effort was in good shape until March 2, when the state Department of Fish and Wildlife said it no longer could lead efforts to create tern habitat on Cate Island in Grays Harbor, Roby said.

Then the state Department of Natural Resources said it wouldn't allow Cate Island to be used for the pilot study, Roby said, making it virtually impossible to select a new site in time for this year's work.

Jane Chavey, a spokeswoman at the Department of Natural Resources, said the situation "is more complicated than it seems," but the agency's experts were not available late Wednesday to detail the agency position.

The power council, however, thought it had a pretty good idea of what's happening.

"It seems like there is a political play going on here," said Mike Field, a power council member from Idaho.

Indeed. Some Southwest Washington politicians and residents are no fans of the Cate Island plans.

Rep. Jim Buck, R-Joyce, whose district includes Grays Harbor, said he wouldn't mind if the terns decided on their own to recolonize the harbor, but he doesn't want them lured there.

"It's a touchy issue," he said. "I know that we have to do something about those Rice Island terns, and we need to do it pretty quick."

But there's no sense, Buck said, in putting Grays Harbor's salmon up for grabs.

"It's one of the few places in the state that doesn't have a (federal salmon) listing, and we'd like to keep it that way," he said.

Council Chairman Cassidy said he has been trying to find a solution. But, he added, "I don't think you are going to get a break on Cate Island in the near future."

Roby said federal wildlife areas across the West are potential relocation sites in future years, an idea supported by Tom Karier, Washington's other member on the power council.

"I think it makes sense to have a backup plan," he said.

And he said concern in Grays Harbor may be alleviated by educating people about the relatively small-scale relocation project.

"Certainly, nobody wants another Rice Island colony in their back yard, but the smaller colonies are controllable and have much less impact on salmon," he said.

But there could be even more complications. Looming at the edge of the tern fracas is the possibility a conservation group may sue to force creation of an environmental impact statement on the relocation plan, Roby acknowledged. That could stop work for at least a year.

Despite the setbacks, Oregon council member Eric Bloch said at least terns are heading in the right direction.

"I think just moving them off (Rice) Island to anywhere else represents some progress," he said.

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Mike Lee
Relocation Scheme for Terns Hits Snag
Tri-City Herald, March 16, 2000

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