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USFWS Grants Corps One-Year Depredation Permit
to Begin Culling Columbia Estuary Cormorants

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 17, 2015

In 1989, only 100 nesting pairs of double-crested cormorants were counted on East Sand Island, near the mouth of the Columbia River. By 2013, numbers had increased to nearly 15,000 nesting pairs, the largest colony in North America. A one-year permit that will allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to carry out the first year of its plan to significantly cull the East Sand Island population of double-crested cormorants in order to reduce the birds' predation on juvenile salmon was approved this week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The one-year depredation permit, approved April 13, allows the Corps to begin culling the birds immediately, but only gives the Corps permission to implement the first year of its four-year plan.

Ultimately that plan will cut the size of the cormorant breeding colony on East Sand Island -- believed to be the largest in the world -- from about 12,900 breeding pairs to between 5,380 and 5,939 pairs. The colony accounts for 98 percent of the double-crested cormorant breeding population in the estuary.

Following the release of the permit, the Audubon Society of Portland immediately said it will sue the Corps to stop the "wanton slaughter," following up on an announcement that it would do so March 20, and that will add the Service as a defendant in the suit.

"We are deeply disappointed in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for issuing these permits," Bob Sallinger, Audubon Society of Portland conservation director, said Tuesday. "The public looks to the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect wild birds, not to permit wanton slaughter. As soon as we update our complaint to include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision, we will be initiating litigation. We expect that to occur within the next several days."

Sallinger said the Society lawsuit likely would be filed late Friday this week or Monday, April 20. Audubon will be represented by Dan Rohlf and the Earthrise Law Center.

"While the Corps has not given us a specific date, we anticipate they will seek to take action in fairly short order," according to Miel Corbett, spokesperson for the Service.

She said that adult cormorants begin to arrive at East Sand Island in early spring -- generally late March, early April. "The numbers increase throughout the spring and peak at the height of breeding season -- generally mid-June -- and then decrease gradually throughout Sept-Oct."

The Corps' preferred alternative (C-1) in its Final Environmental Impact Statement is to reduce the cormorant population at East Sand Island by two lethal methods: shooting and egg oiling, which suffocates the growing embryo inside the egg shell. In addition, the Corps will remove cormorant nests.

The first-year depredation permit authorizes the Corp to take 3,489 individual double-crested cormorants and to remove 5,879 nests, along with 105 Brandt's cormorants and 10 pelagic cormorants.

The Corps had signed a record of decision for its "Columbia River Estuary Cormorants: Environmental Impact Statement" March 20. The EIS lays out the Corps' four-year plan to reduce the lower Columbia River population of the water bird by 56 percent over four years.

Audubon announced the same day its intent to sue the Corps to prevent it from implementing the cormorant plan, saying that the Corps misses the mark on the "real causes of salmon decline for which they bear primary responsibility."

(For more details, see CBB, March 27, 2015, Audubon Announces Intent to Sue Corps Over Plan to Cull Cormorants from Columbia River Estuary).

The Service was one of the cooperating agencies on the Corps' Environmental Impact Statement, providing technical expertise on cormorant monitoring and population modeling, according to its own information. It is responsible for the conservation and management of migratory birds, including the cormorant, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed the population model to provide a science-based assessment of the effects of different levels of individual and egg take on the East Sand Island colony and the western population of double-crested cormorants," the EIS said. The Service used the analysis in the Corps' Final EIS to support its permit decision-making.

However, the Audubon Society said the objectives of the Corps' plan will drive the western double-crested cormorant population below sustainable levels, making the bird vulnerable to decline and listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Service says that won't happen.

"We do not expect to see a long-term declining trend because mortality factors known to limit Double-crested Cormorant populations prior to 1970 have been reduced or eliminated, the western population has exhibited growth on the whole since the 1990's," Corbett wrote, "and the recent breeding colony counts of the western population is similar to that identified in the last species status assessment, indicating a stable or increasing population."

She added that the population model the Service used to assess the effects of this action indicates that the long-term population level will stabilize at or above sustainable levels after the Corp's action.

The depredation permit is valid through January 31, 2016, according to Service information, and, as the Corps activates its plan, it will "occur within a well-monitored and adaptive management framework and requested take levels may be adjusted within that framework to ensure objectives, including not threatening the western population of Double-crested Cormorants, are met."

The double-crested cormorant population nesting on East Sand Island consumed at least 74 million juvenile salmon from 2010 to 2013, equating to a loss of 740,000 returning adult salmon and steelhead, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The Audubon Society of Portland, which has 15,000 members from throughout Oregon, says the reduction in the double-crested cormorant population that is proposed in the Corps' plan would amount to 15 percent of the entire West Coast population of the bird, which ranges north to British Columbia, south to the U.S.--Mexican border, and east to the Rocky Mountains.

While the Society says it supports salmon recovery in the Columbia River, it supports only "science-based strategies that address the primary causes of decline, not the persecution of fish-eating birds for simply doing what comes naturally."

The Corps, it said, should focus on management of the federal hydropower system, habitat loss and hatchery fish as the real causes of salmon decline.

Related Pages:
Audubon Announces Intent to Sue Over Plan to Cull Cormorants from Columbia River Estuary by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 3/27/15
USFWS Grants Corps One-Year Depredation Permit To Begin Culling Columbia Estuary Cormorants by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 4/17/15
Audubon Announces Intent to Sue Corps Over Plan To Cull Cormorants From Columbia River Estuary by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 3/27/15
Final EIS Released On Reducing Estuary Cormorant Numbers; Proposes Both Shooting And Egg Oiling by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 2/6/15

USFWS Grants Corps One-Year Depredation Permit to Begin Culling Columbia Estuary Cormorants
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 17, 2015

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