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Ecology and salmon related articles

Effort to Relocate Terns Meets Stiff Resistance

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, February 21, 2000

Grays Harbor appears unwilling to take salmon-swallowing birds

NIMBYism usually is reserved for the likes of freeways, toxic waste dumps and strip joints.

Not birds.

Yet, "Not In My Back Yard" is the response as researchers search for new homes for Caspian terns. The shorebirds are gobbling juvenile salmon in the lower Columbia River.

"Basically what we're dealing with is a population of birds with a really bad reputation," said Dan Roby, a University of Oregon tern expert.

Under orders to evict the terns from the Columbia, Roby and officials from several federal agencies had hoped to lure an experimental population to southwestern Washington's Grays Harbor. That plan was thwarted by a state senator and the state commissioner of public lands, among others.

"We have a shortage of salmon there, too," said Sen. Sid Snyder, D-Long Beach. "How many terns do we need anyway?"

Terns used to nest in small colonies throughout the Northwest, including in Grays Harbor. Scattered, they weren't a problem.

Over the years, nesting sites were lost to development on Washington's coast and in the Puget Sound region. The Grays Harbor colony lost two islands to erosion and a third to bald eagles that started eating tern eggs.

By the late 1980s, nearly all of Washington's terns settled on 230-acre Rice Island in the Columbia.

The island, about 40 miles inland from the Pacific, was created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from dredging spoils. The Corps hadn't intended to attract terns, but the barren island provided perfect habitat.

The Rice Island colony now is the largest in the world, numbering about 8,000 pairs. Researchers estimate the birds eat 15 percent to 20 percent of the salmon migrating down the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.

The terns are a popular target of groups that oppose dam-breaching and other measures to save endangered salmon. They were a frequent topic at a recent round of federal hearings about the future of the four Snake River dams.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies plan to harass the terns on Rice Island while simultaneously luring them to East Sand Island, which is 17 miles closer to the Pacific. Compared with those on Rice Island, terns on East Sand eat fewer salmon and more sardines, herrings and smelt.

The Northwest Power Planning Council and many politicians, as well as a variety of fishing and conservation groups, want the terns gone from the Columbia altogether. That won't happen unless the birds can find nesting sites elsewhere, said Roby. And with so much natural habitat lost, the birds' new homes will probably have to be habitat created by man.

The few remaining Puget Sound terns nest in a Tacoma Superfund site. They lay their eggs on sand spilled from broken sandbags used to hold down tarps, Roby said. The tarps cover piles of toxic dirt.

At Grays Harbor, the agencies proposed removing grass from state-owned Cate Island, which has formed naturally in recent years from shifting sands. Grays Harbor County planners said land-use regulations didn't allow the work, which would have made the island tern-perfect.

Researchers then asked the state Department of Natural Resources for permission to use decoys and electronic calls to draw at least a few terns to grassless portions of Cate Island. Roby and Snyder said that request was denied by Public Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher, who couldn't be reached for comment late Monday.

The researchers already had faced overwhelming red tape when they proposed luring terns into Willapa Bay, just north of where the Columbia flows into the Pacific.

Roby predicts the birds would eat few salmon if moved to the coast, where other prey fish are plentiful. But he's starting to think the birds will never get a chance to prove they can be good neighbors.

Researchers are turning inland in their search for a new tern homeland. Among the candidates are the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in Central Washington, where the birds would eat freshwater fish such as young carp, tench and other 3- to 6-inch fish.

The bad news for salmon is that it could take years to lure the birds so far from their chosen habitat.

Related Sites:

Dan Hansen
Effort to Relocate Terns Meets Stiff Resistance
Spokesman Review, February 21, 2000

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