FWS floats plan for cormorant control program

Associate Editor

Washington, D.C. The comment period is under way regarding how
best to control a double-crested cormorant population some state
residents say is hurting the aquaculture business and depleting
stocks of some game fish.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last week released a
draft Environmental Impact Statement that contains six possible
options for cormorant management. The “proposed action” by the FWS
is the public resource depredation order alternative.

Among other things, this alternative would authorize state,
federal and tribal land management agencies to implement a
cormorant management program, with federal oversight, according to
a summary of the EIS.

“Control activities under the authority of this new depredation
order could only be carried out by wildlife damage professionals
and only on public and private lands and waters where cormorants
are injurious to public resources such as fish, other wildlife, and
vegetation,” the EIS states.

Furthermore, an aquatic depredation order would allow cormorants
to be killed at freshwater aquaculture facilities and state-owned
fish hatcheries in 13 states, and would be expanded to allow winter
roost control by U.S. Department of Agriculture officials in those
states. Depredation permits would continue to be allowed for other
conflicts regarding cormorant depredation.

“This is a nationwide EIS intended to look at the broad picture
any local controls will be handled regionally,” said Ken Stromborg,
an FWS biologist in Green Bay.

While a hunting season is one of the six options offered by the
FWS, it isn’t the preferred one.

Other options in the EIS include:

No action alternative. This would allow current management
methods to continue, including some non-lethal techniques
(harassment and habitat modification), the issuance of depredation
permits and continuation of the 1998 Aquaculture Depredation
Order.

Non-lethal management alternative. This alternative would
include only non-lethal management techniques and do away with the
1998 depredation order and depredation permits.

Increased local damage control alternative. This alternative
would continue current depredation control methods and expand them
in some cases. The FWS policy prohibiting lethal control of
cormorants (in most cases) at national fish hatcheries would be
revoked.

Regional population reduction alternative. This alternative
would create regional cormorant population objectives, along with
associated depredation control mechanisms.

Regulated hunting alternative. This alternative would mean the
development of frameworks for hunting double-crested
cormorants.

Stromborg said cormorants were virtually extinct in Wisconsin in
the late 1960s, and early 1970s, because of DDT use. Since then,
the population has expanded to about 10,000 breeding pairs in the
eastern part of the state.

“We do get complaints about the numbers of cormorants and amount
of fish they may be eating,” said Stromborg, adding that the FWS
does issue depredation permits in Wisconsin, primarily for birds
causing problems at fish hatcheries.

“Depredating birds have been killed in Wisconsin, but it has
been specific birds at fish hatcheries a very targeted effort,” he
said, adding that few cormorants are actually killed under the
permit system.

However, in Minnesota, about 2,000 depredating cormorants were
killed in 1999, according to Katie Haws, a Minnesota DNR non-game
wildlife specialist stationed in Bemidji, Minn. She said a similar
number likely were killed last year. Nationwide last year, about
47,000 cormorants, or roughly 2 percent of their population, were
killed by way of depredation permit or a 1998 depredation
order.

Since 1972, cormorants have been protected under the Migratory
Bird Treaty Act. They are also protected by state law.

According to a recent FWS press release, cormorants became a
protected species “after their populations dropped precipitously
due to use of the pesticide DDT, killings by humans, and the
overall declining health of many ecosystems, especially that of the
Great Lakes.

“Today, the population is at historic highs, due in large part
to the presence of ample food in their summer and winter ranges,
federal and state protection, and reduced contaminant levels,” the
release said.

In the Great Lakes region, the number of double-crested
cormorant nests increased about 29 percent annually between 1970
and 1991, and by 1997 the Great Lakes population had reached
approximately 93,000 pairs, according to the FWS. The total
population in the U.S. and Canada has been estimated near 2 million
birds.

On Lake Michigan, there were 52 breeding pairs in 1977. In 1990,
that number increased to 2,600 breeding pairs. In 1999, there were
8,900 pairs.

“I haven’t seen much difference in the past two or three years
on Lake Michigan,” Stromborg said.

The Wisconsin portion of Lake Superior also has breeding pairs
that increased from zero in 1977 to 480 in 1990 and then to 625 in
1999.

The FWS is accepting comment on the EIS through Jan. 15, 2002.
There also will be a series of public meetings, including one in
Wisconsin. The site and time are yet to be determined, though
Stromborg said likely it will be one in Green Bay.

Following the comment period and meetings, the FWS will review
the information and select the best alternative, or possibly a
combination of more than one.

The draft EIS is available on the Internet at:
http://migratorybirds.fws.gov.

To submit written comments or to obtain a copy of the draft EIS,
write to the Chief, Division of Migratory Bird Management, U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA.,
22203. Comments may be submitted via e-mail at:
cormorant_eis@fws.gov, or via fax at: (703) 358-2272. For more
information, call (703) 358-1714.

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