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U.S. Told to Leave Terns Unstoned

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 2000

Seabirds can't be chased away to save salmon

Federal officials working to protect wild salmon under the Endangered Species Act are forbidden from chasing fish-gobbling birds off an island near the mouth of the Columbia River, under a ruling by a federal judge in Seattle.

After losing many of their nesting places to development and other man-made encroachments, Caspian terns have taken a fancy to an unnatural island created by dumping sand dredged from the river bottom.

From that nesting spot, federal officials say, the terns are scarfing up young salmon migrating past the island from their upriver spawning grounds.

Last week a team hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was to start shooing away the terns, forcing them to take up residence at another island even closer to the river's mouth. There, federal officials hope, the terns would do less damage to salmon runs.

But four conservation groups -- the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the Seattle Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy -- sued to halt the bird-chasing.

"They haven't made a case that this is really a problem for wild fish," said Helen Ross, conservation coordinator of the Seattle Audubon Society. "We feel like the federal government really needs to look at this in a more systematic way. It needs to be scientifically defensible."

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled Friday that her temporary ban on scaring off the birds will remain in effect at least until an April 24 hearing in the lawsuit.

Several strains of salmon are protected under the Endangered Species Act because of their dropping numbers. Meanwhile, the birds aren't doing so hot, either, and are protected in several states.

About three-quarters of the West Coast population of the terns, roughly 16,000, have started nesting at the unnatural island, Rice Island, according to the conservationists' lawsuit.

Other nesting sites should be identified before the birds are scared off, the conservation groups say.

Brian Gorman, National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman in Seattle, said the agency believes the terns are seriously damaging salmon populations by eating the finger sized salmon bound for the Pacific Ocean.

He said doing a full study of the options, as the conservationists ask, would take as long as a year.

"In the meantime, we'll have terns eating young salmon," Gorman said. "That's exactly the kind of thing we want to avoid."

But Ross, of the Audubon Society, said scientists from Gorman's own agency question whether the terns are hurting wild salmon very much. The key, she said, is to understand the difference between wild salmon and those born in hatcheries.

Wild salmon are the focus of the government's recovery efforts, because their genetic diversity is thought to enable them to survive better over the long haul.

Salmon from hatcheries, however, are not protected under the law. Scientists say their lack of genetic diversity makes them more prone to major population crashes when faced with big environmental threats such as disease outbreaks.

Hatchery fish are not as wily as their wild cousins and are known to be less proficient at avoiding predators.

The Audubon Society's Ross said the terns can't dive very deeply and are in all likelihood eating mostly hatchery fish, which swim near the surface, rather than wild fish, which tend to swim deeper.

Shooing away the birds is the quickest and easiest method being considered. The most controversial measure under consideration is disabling four dams in the lower Snake River, a Columbia tributary.

Breaching these dams would return the river to a more natural state and help the salmon rebound, scientists agree.

But that also would end barge traffic on the Snake, making it significantly more expensive for inland wheat growers and others to move products to market. In addition, expensive fixes would be needed to maintain 13 large farms irrigated from water pooled behind one of the dams.

Opponents of breaching the dams say that moving the terns should be tried first.

"The (environmentalists') suit serves to thwart common-sense actions and put more pressure on extreme proposals like dam breaching," Darren Coppock of the Oregon Wheat Growers League said in a prepared statement.

"Tern relocation is a low-cost, high-benefit action that would show near-term and significant benefit for fish," he said.

Gov. Dick Kempthorne of Idaho also criticized Rothstein's ruling.

"It's an outrageous situation," Kempthorne said in a prepared statement. "A variety of state and federal agencies agree that moving the terns . . . is a solution to help get smolt to the ocean."

Under the Army Corps' plan, three people would be stationed on Rice Island through July to chase away the the birds. As a part of that, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had approved the destruction of as many as 300 eggs.

Last year, the corps erected concentric circles of black fence that reduced the birds' line of sight, effectively reducing their habitat from 8 acres to 1. Even so, some 8,000 pairs squeezed in to make nests.

The corps also cleared a four-acre nesting area on East Sand Island, about 15 miles away, to try to get the birds to feed on fish other than the young salmon. About 700 pairs of terns showed up there.

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Robert McClure
U.S. Told to Leave Terns Unstoned
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 2000

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