Fish-eating Birds Target of Salmon Protectorsby Shirley Wentworth, Herald Basin bureau
Tri-City Herald, June 15, 2003
That's what the Audubon Society calls the practice by government officials to kill birds on the Columbia River that gobble up precious salmon.
The Seattle Audubon chapter has teamed up with National Audubon, American Birds Conservancy and the Defenders of Wildlife to halt the killings by Wildlife Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"It's incredibly frustrating to us," said Alex Morgan, conservation coordinator for Seattle Audubon. "They're shooting thousands of birds a year without understanding the impact on fish. If it eats fish, it gets shot. The assumption is that it's eating (salmon)."
Wildlife Services contracts with the Grant County, Chelan County and Douglas County PUDs to control and/or shoot fish-eating birds, primarily gulls. More than a year ago, the coalition filed a Freedom of Information Act request for public records detailing the number of birds and species killed to protect juvenile salmon at dams in Grant, Chelan and Douglas counties.
By law, an agency has 20 days to notify the person making the request of its status. However, the agency has yet to respond with the requested information.
Roger Woodruff, state director of Wildlife Services, said that's because his office sends FOIA requests to the Agriculture Department's Washington, D.C., headquarters, which has a huge backlog of requests due to a lengthy lawsuit.
Woodruff disputes the claims.
"They are way, way off base on a bunch of stuff," he said. "I'm a little surprised by some of their allegations."
Woodruff said his agency has done a very thorough analysis and didn't find any negative repercussions to any bird populations.
Morgan contended there are a lot of unknown factors. For example, he said it's not known if the birds actually are eating endangered juvenile salmon or if they're eating its predator, the northern pikeminnow. Nor do PUD officials know if the birds are eating nitrogen-damaged fish that wouldn't survive anyway, he added.
"That's baloney. There's lots of studies," Woodruff said. "We see it when we're out in the field and shoot a gull and see the tails of three juvenile salmon hanging out of its mouth."
Identification badges inserted into fish are found by the thousands on nesting islands, he said. If left unchecked, he said, the birds kill quite a few fish.
Thousands of gulls used to congregate at the bottom of the dams where migrating salmon come out of the fish passages. Now fewer birds show up, Woodruff said. The agency has been more successful this year scaring off the birds, and, as a result, has killed 42 percent fewer birds than last year.
By May 2002, about 1,500 birds had been killed at Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams. The count is about 800 this year, he said.
The coalition of environmental groups wants an extensive environmental review before more birds are killed. However, Woodruff said his agency has almost finished an environmental assessment that concludes there isn't a significant environmental impact. He also said his agency plans to work through the issues with the Audubon groups.
Morgan said Chelan PUD is undertaking a study to determine which birds are being killed and where they come from. He commended the utility but added the study should be completed before birds are killed.
Linda Jones, Grant County PUD manager of natural resources and regulatory affairs, said her PUD is under a mandate from NOAA Fisheries and the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure endangered juvenile salmon survival. They are ordered to make sure at least 95 percent of the salmon survive Mid-Columbia dams and 93 percent survival rate at reservoirs.
Gary Garnant, Grant PUD spokesman, said his utility made several changes this year, including a ban on killing Caspian terns and a ban on killing any birds at the Priest Rapids Hatchery.
So far, nothing but gulls have been killed this year, Grant PUD biologists said. Studies done for the PUD show that about 2.3 percent of fish are killed by birds.
This year, the PUD set aside $166,520 to haze the birds -- up from $70,520 in 2002.
If Morgan and Woodruff agree on anything, it's that bird control is a small part of fish survival. Woodruff is proud of his agency's role in "helping the little guys get through," while Morgan said more attention should be placed on the dams themselves.
"Stop scapegoating birds who've eaten fish for thousands of years and blaming them for declining fish," Morgan said.
The Grant County PUD, keepers of the largest conventional hydropower operation in the country, is going through relicensing of its dams, a process that is under scrutiny nationwide. A public comment period is open until Aug. 4.
The final application will be sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Oct. 21 for review.
To comment, write Laurel Heacock, licensing manager, Grant County Public Utility District, P.O. Box 878, Ephrata, WA 98823. For more information, call 800-894-6960 or go to www.gcpud.org
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