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Power Council Says Evict Terns Now

Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 24, 1999

The Northwest Power Planning Council voted Wednesday to withhold $642,000 in funding for a study on Caspian tern predation until a plan is produced that considers "all necessary measures to reduce the size of the tern population in the estuary."

The Council crafted a letter to National Marine Fisheries Service regional administrator Will Stelle asking for aggressive action.

"Specifically, we urge that the management goal for (fiscal year) 2000 should be to reduce tern predation levels to less than 5 percent of the migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River," says the letter from Council Chairman Todd Maddock.

"I personally think that the only way to do that is population control," Council member Larry Cassidy of Washington said during Wednesday funding discussions. He and Montana's Stan Grace said population control should include lethal means.

"We know what they eat and we know what they do," Cassidy said of continuing research. "Enough is enough. We need to do something about it."

During its meeting in Spokane, the Council heard a briefing on a 1999 effort to relocate Caspian terns from their primary nesting ground on Rice Island, which was created in 1962 with dredge spoils from the Army Corps of Engineers shipping channel maintenance program.

Researchers attempted to entice the birds, which spend the winter in California and Mexico, to nest on East Sand Island near the mouth of the river and about 17 miles downriver from Rice Island. The theory was that birds nesting nearer the ocean would consume a higher percentage of marine fish species, such as anchovy, herring and shiner perch, and fewer salmon.

NMFS' Ben Meyer told the Council that of 95 million smolts to reach the estuary, 9 to 30 percent were consumed either by terns or double-breasted cormorants. The draft report prepared by the Caspian tern working group cites an estimate that the Rice Island tern colony gulped 12.9 million smolts in 1998.

The 1999 experiment worked to some degree. Almost 2,800 terns out of a colony of about 12,000 nesting pairs relocated to East Sand Island and included 30 percent fewer salmonids in their diets than did Rice Island residents.

The work group asked the Council to consider a plan for 2000 that included two certainties -- that suitable habitat be created outside the estuary in Grays Harbor and South Puget Sound in Washington and that terns be prevented from nesting at Rice Island.

The Corps of Engineers will be "going full out to make sure we keep the terms off Rice Island," said Bob Willis, Portland district chief of fisheries research and passage design. That mandate is outlined in a NMFS biological opinion on the Corps' channel maintenance program. Those efforts would include total revegetation of the island, and harassment.

"We would not stop the harassment even when the eggs are laid," Willis said.

The uncertainty in the preliminary plan concerns the future of East Sand Island. Alternatives posed ranged from enhancing tern habitat to completely preventing nesting there as well.

Carol Schuler of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service insisted that the terns should have a niche in the estuary. The bird's population is growing, and though not listed under the Endangered Species Act, her agency has responsibilities under the Migratory Bird Protection Act to maintain a viable population of the terns.

She said the USFWS favors the first alternative, which maintains some habitat for terns at East Sand while continuing to seek out coastal habitat that might be made to attract terns.

Oregon State University researcher Dan Roby said it would be best for the birds and salmon alike if the Rice Island population was dispersed into several smaller colonies. Eliminating nesting on both Rice and East Sand posed the risk of scattering the birds upriver, where the smolts are even easier prey.

The Council had anticipated an action plan instead of four alternatives for reducing the impact of the world's largest Caspian tern colony on outmigrating salmon and steelhead. Among the numbers of fish consumed are numerous salmon and steelhead species listed under the ESA.

"Based on the report we received in Spokane, we find no justification for approving this funding as long as the management goals and strategies remain so poorly articulated," the Council's letter to Stelle read.

Cassidy and fellow Washington Council representative Tom Karier expressed frustration that the inter-agency team evaluating the situation lacked agreement on a predator control solution. And all of the alternatives posed had the same bottom line -- the risk of serving up to terns as many as 15 percent of the smolts that reach the estuary.

"We should put NMFS' feet to the fire" by demanding a plan for reducing tern predation, Cassidy said.

Meyer, chairman of the work group, said Stelle and U.S. Fish and Wildlife regional director Anne Badgley were to discuss the alternatives for East Sand Island today (Sept. 24) and the topic would come up again Sept. 27 during a meeting of federal executives. The work group is made up of NMFS, Corps, USFWS, Bonneville Power Administration, NPPC, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and Washington, Oregon and Idaho state fish and wildlife officials. CRITFC and Oregon State University personnel have been heading the research.

The Council asked that a plan be presented at its Nov. 2-3 meeting in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Idaho Council member Mike Field complimented the work group members on their research efforts to-date but said the focus seems to have been lost. He said that about $200 million is spent annually to produce the smolts. That means if the terns eat 10 million smolts, the birds' dinner costs $20 million. Cost aside, salmon species are at risk.

"They (terns) are not in trouble but the smolts are in trouble," Field said.

Idaho's Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was equally as adamant as his representatives to the Council.

"...I write to advise the Council of my strong belief that only elimination of all tern nesting in the estuary will ensure the continued viability of the smolt runs during the next tern nesting season," Kempthorne wrote in a letter faxed to the Council Tuesday.

"I agree that all Caspian terms must be precluded form nesting on Rice Island and all other island in the estuary above the Astoria Bridge. However, regarding what to do with a tern population on East Sand Island, it is my firm belief that no Caspian terns should be allowed to nest on East Sand Island. This will ensure that a viable universe of young smolt will safely make their way out of the estuary with the best chance of returning as adults in the near future."

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Barry Espenson
Power Council Says Evict Terns Now
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 24, 1999

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