Army Corps plan proposes killing birds to protect fish

Nearly 16,000 Columbia River cormorants targeted

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed killing nearly 16,000 double-crested cormorants at the mouth of the Columbia River to prevent the birds from eating threatened fish.

Cormorants have established a large colony on East Sand Island, estimated at 14,900 nesting pairs last year. But the birds have feasted on 11 million juvenile salmon and steelhead annually during the past 15 years, according to the corps. That’s led wildlife managers to look for ways to protect endangered fish.

In a draft plan released Thursday, the corps proposed managing cormorants primarily by shooting them with shotguns. Crews would kill 15,956 of the birds over a four-year period that would start in 2015. They would also put oil on cormorant eggs to keep them from hatching, said Army corps spokeswoman Diana Fredlund.

Officials hope the plan provides better protection for the salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River system. The feeding frenzy at the mouth of the river has put officials in the awkward position of weighing the needs of one protected species versus another.

Double-crested cormorants are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Killing them would require the blessing of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has assisted with the review, said spokeswoman Miel Corbett.

Salmon and steelhead are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Non-lethal efforts at hazing the birds or limiting their habitat in the area haven’t reduced their numbers, Fredlund said. In fact, the population has continued to increase at East Sand Island, according to the corps.

“It’s everything a cormorant could want, and they’re really not interested in moving,” Fredlund said. Even if they did, “we don’t want to just move this problem somewhere else,” she added.

It’s not unusual for two protected animals to be in natural conflict with each other, Corbett said. But the plan proposed by the corps would be the first such action taken to manage cormorants at East Sand Island, she said.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is find a balance between these two species,” Corbett said.

The corps will accept public comment from June 19 through Aug. 4. The agency also plans to hold a series of open house meetings, including a meeting in Portland at 2:30 p.m. Thursday, July 10, in the Matt Dishman Community Center at 77 N.E. Knott St.

This isn’t the first time a management plan has involved killing a particular animal species to protect endangered fish in the region. A program to kill salmon-eating sea lions on the Columbia River has been met with strong opposition from some advocates.

Before the corps can kill cormorants at East Sand Island, the plan must complete a final environmental review and a Record of Decision.

Comments can be sent by email to cormorant-eis@usace.army.mil.