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Ecology and salmon related articles

For Second Year, Corps Issued Permit to Cull
Cormorants in Lower Columbia; Allows Killing 3,216 Birds

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 15, 2016

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. For the second year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a depredation permit to begin culling cormorants in the lower Columbia River estuary.

The purpose is to reduce double crested cormorant predation on protected juvenile salmon migrating through the lower Columbia River estuary toward the Pacific Ocean.

The Corps, which requested the permit from the Service in late January, according to Corps spokesperson Amy Echols, received the final 2016 depredation permit March 18.

The permit allows Wildlife Services, the Corps' contractor, to shoot cormorants and oil and destroy cormorant nests on East Sand Island, the open water between East Sand Island and the Astoria/Megler Bridge, and on any dredge remain islands in the lower river.

It allows the Corps to lethally take 3,114 double crested cormorants, 93 Brandt's cormorants and 9 Pelagic cormorants. The latter two species are allowed due to the recognition that some birds that are not double crested cormorants will be misidentified and shot.

The permit also allows the Corps to destroy 5,247 double crested cormorant nests through egg addling by coating eggs with 100 percent corn oil, which suffocates the growing embryo inside the shell. Some 750 of those nests can be fully destroyed, according to the permit.

However, the Corps is unlikely to begin this year's program until more of the cormorants show up in the estuary and begin nesting.

"The Double Crested Cormorants have not arrived in the Columbia River Estuary in numbers significant enough to begin culling activities," Echols said. "The Corps is monitoring the area to identify culling opportunities but does not have a set date for this."

The Audubon Society of Portland, along with four other conservation and animal welfare groups filed a lawsuit in late April 2015 to stop the Corps from initiating its cormorant management plan. The suit lists as defendants the Corps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wildlife Services.

The lawsuit alleged that the killing could jeopardize the entire western population of double crested cormorants.

A motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the culling plan immediately was denied May 8, 2015, by presiding Judge Michael H. Simon.

The lawsuit has continued as both sides agreed on a course of action that results in final oral arguments before Judge Michael H. Simon. While that was to occur March 7, the briefing schedule was pushed out and the court has yet to reschedule an oral argument date. "We believe the court will likely schedule oral argument for early to mid-April," Echols said.

The colony of cormorants on the island increased from about 100 breeding pairs in 1989 to more than 15,000 pairs in 2013, according to the Corps.

As the populations of cormorants grew, along with populations of gulls and Caspian terns, so did the number of juvenile salmon and steelhead they eat while the juveniles migrate down the Columbia River on their journey to the ocean. The number is estimated to be 12 million juveniles and many are species listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

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

The Corps signed an ROD for its "Columbia River Estuary Cormorants: Environmental Impact Statement" March 20, 2015. 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. (See the EIS. Most of the plan for culling the birds is found in chapter 5.)

According to the final EIS, annual individual take under the program would involve 13.5 percent of the colony in years 1 to 4, and associated nest loss and nest oiling rates of 72.5 percent in years 1 to 3 and 13.5 percent in year 4.

"In total, 10,912 individuals and 26,096 total nests are proposed to be taken in all years (3,489, 3,114, 2,408, and 1,902 individuals taken in years 1-4; 9,368, 8,361, 6,466, and 1,902 nests lost in years 1-4)," the document says.

The Corps received its first one-year depredation permit from the Service last year. The first permit allowed the Corps to take 3,489 double crested cormorants and oil and destroy 5,879 nests, 105 Brandt's cormorants and 10 pelagic cormorants through January 31, 2016. It must apply annually for the permit.

Wildlife Services began its activities in 2015 on May 24, ending the first year of culling October 1, with 1,707 birds lethally removed and 5,089 oiled nests.

A report of the 2015 cormorant operation, titled "Enumeration and Monitoring Surveys of Double-Crested Cormorants in the Lower Columbia River Estuary," showed the largest concentration of double crested cormorants on East Sand Island occurred the week of July 1, 2015, with 12,150 breeding pairs counted, along with 2,071 breeding pairs of Brandt's cormorants. About 1,022 breeding pairs of double crested cormorants were observed in other areas in the lower river.

The actual number of double crested cormorants observed in the estuary during the July 1 week totaled 29,217 -- 24,300 were nesting over 2.97 acres of East Sand Island.

The density of Brandt's cormorants on East Sand Island peaked one week later, with 4,959 birds, 4,142 nesting and 2,071 nesting pairs observed the week of July 6.

That compares with a high of about 14,800 breeding pairs of double crested cormorants in 2013 and about 13,500 breeding pairs in 2014.

About 50 percent of the nests were already established when Wildlife Services first observed the birds April 27. By May 12, 85 percent to 100 percent of the nests were established.

The report, published on the Corps' cormorant website in early March, was completed by David C. Smith and Assoc. from Portland, with help from Statewide Land Surveyors Inc. of Gresham and Harris Environmental of Tucson.

Meanwhile, harassment, or "hazing", of double-crested cormorants is set to begin soon in several areas along the Oregon Coast to improve survival of juvenile salmon.

The species is an Oregon native, and is particularly prevalent on the state's estuaries during April through October. Research indicates cormorants can consume significant numbers of juvenile salmon during this time period.

To reduce the threat to young fish, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with several nonprofit and local governmental organizations to haze cormorants on six coastal estuaries over the next two to four months.

Hazing will involve driving the birds from locations where juvenile salmon are seasonally concentrated, toward areas where non-salmon fish species are more abundant. Workers will use boats and, on some estuaries, small pyrotechnics, to accomplish the task.

Hazing is intended to increase the survival of both wild-spawned and hatchery salmon juveniles as they migrate to the ocean. Some of these spring migrants represent species that are experiencing conditions of conservation risk, including coho salmon, which is federally threatened in Oregon under the Endangered Species Act.

Hazing workers are being provided by the Clatsop County Fisheries Project, Port of Nehalem, Port of Bandon, North Coast Salmon and Steelhead Enhancement Fund, and Alsea Sportsmen's Association. ODFW will provide a portion of the funding and program oversight, and will conduct some hazing operations itself to protect hatchery releases on the lower Columbia River.

Hazing will take place as early as April 1 and continue through May 31 on the Nehalem, Nestucca, and Coquille river estuaries, and on Tillamook and Alsea bays. The program will continue through at least July 31 on the lower Columbia River, where hazing will occur at a variety of locations, including Young's Bay, Blind Slough, and Tongue Point.

Related Pages:
Culling Cormorants Begins: Goal Is To Reduce 15,000 Breeding Pairs To Under 6,000 by 2018 by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin 5/29/15
Conservation, Animal Welfare Groups File Lawsuit To Stop Plan To Cull Estuary Cormorants by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin 4/24/15
USFWS Grants Corps One-Year Depredation Permit To Begin Culling Columbia Estuary Cormorants by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin 12/4/17/15
Audubon Announces Intent to Sue Corps Over Plan To Cull Cormorants From Columbia River Estuary by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin 12/4/15
Final EIS Released On Reducing Estuary Cormorant Numbers; Proposes Both Shooting And Egg Oiling by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin 2/6/15

Related Sites:
Corps Increases Cormorant Culling In Recent Days; Killing Opportunities Ending Soon As Birds Disperse by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin 10/2/15
Audubon Releases Internal USFWS Report Questioning Whether Culling Cormorants Improves Fish Survival by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin 8/14/15
Federal Judge Allows Corps' Cormorant Culling Plan to Proceed In Columbia River Estuary by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin 5/15/15

For Second Year, Corps Issued Permit to Cull Cormorants in Lower Columbia; Allows Killing 3,216 Birds
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 15, 2016

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