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Corps Set on Evicting Terns from Rice Island

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, January 22, 2000

The Army Corps of Engineers drew a line last year in the sand of Rice Island.

And 8,100 nesting pairs of Caspian terns stepped right over it, continuing to breed and feed on endangered fish despite cramped quarters on their favorite dredge spoils island near the mouth of the Columbia River.

So this year - directed by the National Marine Fisheries Service - the Corps is drawing a new line.

This one is for real.

No messing around. Constant patrols. A "high level of harassment" on all-terrain vehicles. Even a press release this week that there is "no vacancy" on Rice Island.

The nemesis birds of Columbia River salmon do get one reprieve again this year. "It is not our intention to harm the Caspian terns physically," said Matt Rabe, Corps spokesman. "But we have also been given the direction ... that the Caspian terns need to be removed."

In recent years, terns have eaten an estimated 7 million to 25 million salmon and steelhead smolts that pass Rice Island, including more than a half-million federally protected fish last year during the first phase of the tern elimination project. Despite federal agency efforts, nearly the same number of terns nested on Rice Island in 1999 as in 1998.

This winter's efforts will turn the sandy 8-acre nesting patch on Rice Island into a virtual bunker of plastic sheeting and fencing. Eagle silhouettes, audio recordings of tern distress calls and daily interference by hired help will start by early April to keep the birds from settling in when they migrate back to the Lower Columbia from their winter homes.

The Corps even is taking away the birds' right of assembly, vowing "direct human approach" whenever colonies of terns get bigger than 25.

So, the terns will be looking for another home. East Sand Island, to which the Corps attracted nearly 3,000 terns last year, again remains the top choice of federal agencies.

And the Corps is working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to prepare a home for the gluttonous birds in Grays Harbor, the site of a popular tern colony before the birds realized how easy it was to feed from the manmade Rice Island. By the late 1990s, the Rice Island tern colony was the largest in the world.

Despite all the work, there's still a chance things won't work quite as well as hoped. For one thing, no one knows what will happen when the terns see their summer nesting home no longer is comfy.

"Attraction of terns to any proposed site cannot be guaranteed due to incomplete knowledge of tern breeding habitat selection," said the Corps work plan.

Mike Lee
Corps Set on Evicting Terns from Rice Island
Tri-City Herald, January 22, 2000

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