Thursday, February 9th, 2023
Thursday, February 9th, 2023

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USFWS pushes forward with cormorant control

Associate Editor

St. Paul As the federal government continues to push toward
local-level cormorant control, officials in Minnesota say at this
point there’s little they’re authorized to do regarding cormorant
management. Carrol Henderson, DNR nongame supervisor, calls it a
“black hole,” of sorts.

“The way the federal depredation order (that authorized in 1998
the taking of depredating cormorants) and the new statement (the
Final Environmental Impact Statement for cormorant control) read,
responsibility for cormorant control is shifting to the states,” he
said. However, the DNR in Minnesota hasn’t been granted legislative
authority to manage the species.

But changes in cormorant management in Minnesota could be
limited. Currently, there’s a standing depredation order which was
issued in 1998 that allows the killing of trouble-causing
cormorants in the Minnesota. Henderson said that about 3,000 are
killed each year in the state, most at private aquaculture
facilities. Nationwide, the 1998 order has allowed for the taking
of up to nearly 50,000 annually.

Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released the Final
EIS for cormorants. The “preferred alternative” in the EIS “will
give local authorities a more active role in double-crested
cormorant management,” according to a press release from the
agency. The recommendation is subject to a 30-day comment period.
After that, a final rule will be published.

“Since populations are increasing and cormorants have been shown
to cause localized impacts to natural and economic resources, we
believe local management is the best approach to reduce conflicts,”
said Steve Williams, USFWS director.

Bill Paul, assistant state director for the USDA’s Wildlife
Services in Grand Rapids, said the most noticeable changes might be
on public waters.

“There shouldn’t be much of a change for aquaculture producers,”
he said. “They can take cormorants right on the pond facilities
where they’re doing damage. There might be more of an impact on
public waters.”

For example, resorters, fishing guides, or lake associations may
be able to apply for a depredation permit where cormorants are
causing damage. In those cases, either USDA Wildlife Services or
perhaps the state DNR could be involved with helping private groups
or individuals obtain such a permit. Currently, aquaculture
facilities are allowed to continue to kill depredating cormorants
without securing additional permits, Paul said. They simply must
report the number of birds killed to the federal agency.

The new order could extend to private property where roosting
colonies may be causing damage to trees or island habitat, Paul
said.

The double-crested cormorant has no special protection category
endangered or threatened but it’s a federally protected bird under
the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Before that protection was
established in the 1970s, according to the USFWS, “their
populations had dropped precipitously, largely due to DDT-induced
egg shell thinning and human persecution.”

However, new state and federal protection, coupled with reduced
contaminant levels, allowed the birds to prosper in recent years.
The current North American population estimate is about 2 million
double-crested cormorants.

In Minnesota, there are about 6,000 to 8,000 breeding pairs,
Henderson said. About 10 years ago, the population was even
greater, but reduced by an outbreak of Newcastle disease in the Lac
qui Parle area, he said. Complaints have leveled off in recent
years, Henderson adds, probably because fishing has been good.

The current USFWS proposal states: “Under the proposed rule, a
previous 1998 aquaculture depredation order would remain in effect
and continue to allow double-crested cormorants to be taken at
commercial freshwater aquaculture facilities and state-owned fish
hatcheries in 13 states (including Minnesota and 12 southern
states) and would be expanded to authorize winter roost control by
Wildlife Services in those states.

“The proposed rule, if approved, would establish a new public
resource depredation order authorizing 24 state fish and wildlife
agencies, tribes, and Wildlife Services to implement a
double-crested cormorant management program, while maintaining
federal oversight of populations via reporting and monitoring
requirements to ensure sustainable populations.”

Some states affected by the current proposal include Midwestern
neighbors Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana.
Allowable control techniques include egg oiling, egg and nest
destruction, cervical dislocation, shooting, and CO2
asphyxiation.

Henderson said how the proposal could change cormorant
management in Minnesota remains to be seen. When a final rule is in
place, he said, state DNR officials will gather with other vested
parties, including the USFWS and Wildlife Services, “to understand
how cormorants will be dealt with in the state” and what role each
agency will play.

In Minnesota, locations with oft-documented cormorant
depredation include Lake of the Woods, the Fergus Falls area, and
the Leech Lake area.

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