Cormorant study slated for Leech

Steering committee believes the bird species is just part of
lake’s problem

By Tim Spielman

Associate Editor

Walker, Minn. A federal grant secured by the Leech Lake Band of
Ojibwe will help fund a study that could begin answering the
question: What’s happening with Leech Lake’s walleyes?

Though little data exist to confirm their notion, some
biologists believe the burgeoning population of double-crested
cormorants, and their hearty diet of fish, is part of the reason
for several consecutive poor year-classes of walleyes. But this
month, the tribe, along with other agencies, will begin collecting
up to 200 cormorants “to determine what species of fish migrating
cormorants are foraging on and in what numbers,” according to a
Leech Lake Band news release.

Steve Mortensen, fish and wildlife biologist for the Fish,
Wildlife, and Plant Resources Program of the Leech Lake Band’s
Division of Resources Management, said the federal portion of the
funding is $209,000. Partners, such as the Minnesota DNR, the
University of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
Wildlife Services, the U.S. Forest Service, the Leech Lake
Watershed Project, the Leech Lake Association, and the Miles Lord
Family will add monetary and in-kind contributions to the project,
he said.

The grant is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Tribal Wildlife
Grant, a competitive grant program now in its second year,
Mortensen said.

According to the Leech Lake Band, personnel from Wildlife
Services will be collecting the cormorants under a permit from the
USFWS. Birds will be collected by way of shotgun from various
locations around the lake. Leech Lake officials expect collection
will be done prior to the beginning of waterfowl hunting
season.

Harlan Fierstine, DNR fisheries supervisor in Walker, said the
department has little data regarding cormorant depredation on fish
species, “but we do have indications of their impact things that
point that way,” he said. Those things include what has appeared to
be good walleye year-classes gone awry, and reductions in perch
numbers in the lake.

Most of the nesting cormorants of Leech Lake have settled onto
Little Pelican Island, which is owned by the Leech Lake tribe.
Cormorant growth has been recent, and dramatic.

“In 1998 was the first year we really noticed them nesting
there,” Fierstine said. “Today there are more than 2,500 nesting
pairs.”

According to tribe, previous control efforts such as cutting
down standing trees and gathering and burning woody material and
nests have not been successful. They say numbers increased from
1,114 nests counted in 2003 to 2,524 this year.

State and tribal officials say the tremendous growth not only
may be affecting fish populations, but also common terns, a
state-threatened species that nests next to cormorants.

“(Cormorants) do this by outcompeting the terns for limited
nesting space,” according to the tribe. “So even though we lack
conclusive evidence of significant adverse effects on game fish
populations, we can undertake cormorant control measures to protect
the terns, and this is the route we are taking.”

According to the tribe, “the USFWS recently completed an
Environmental Impact Statement on cormorants and they have
subsequently promulgated regulations that allow for the reduction
in cormorant numbers in Minnesota and 23 other states in instances
where it’s documented that they are causing significant damage to
natural resources “

Leech has other issues’

The commencement of the cormorant study comes on the heels of a
steering committee meeting held for the public regarding possible
things contributing to Leech Lake’s recent poor walleye production
and reduced perch numbers, and possible solutions.

While cormorants topped the list, Larry Anderson, a Leech Lake
fishing guide and chair of the Leech Lake Association, said area
interests also are looking at whether special regulations (which
could include slot size limits or daily limit reductions, or both)
or walleye stocking are in Leech’s future.

“We know this is not just a problem started because of
cormorants,” Anderson said. “There has been a decline in the
fishing because of other things.”

More than 200 people attended the meeting last week, Anderson
said. Enough support was shown that the DNR will “post” Leech Lake
this year, letting anglers know the agency is considering special
regulations. That will allow the DNR to implement new regs by next
year, if there is public support, said Ron Payer, Fish and Wildlife
program manager for the DNR and a meeting attendee. Also attending
from the DNR were Mark Holsten, deputy commissioner, and Henry
Drewes, fisheries researcher, along with Fierstine, Anderson
said.

“We had all the people we needed to hear what’s going on,” he
said. Also on hand was local state Rep. Larry Howes.

Anderson said support for special regulations is split. Poor
fishing has been at least partly to blame for the loss of 11
businesses in the Walker area in the past year, he said. And the
lake is down to 30 resorts, when it once had about 80.

“This (issue) has got to be a priority for the community and the
people who have an interest in the lake,” he said.

Payer said a slot limit proposal likely would evolve from public
meetings that will occur this fall. Typically, the department
chooses from three “toolbox” plans available to keep special
regulations simpler for anglers, yet to fit the character of the
lake. However, in the case of Leech, things could be different.

“We use the toolbox wherever we can, but on big water (like
Leech, at 111,000 acres) we’ll use better regulations if we
can.”

Anderson said stocking walleyes in Leech was discussed in-depth
at the meeting. The DNR has stayed away from stocking, as surveys
indicate “near-record spawning biomass,” according to
Fierstine.

“They (DNR officials) don’t believe stocking is needed in Leech
Lake but my comeback is, if the bigger fish are being taken out,
we’re losing that biomass quickly,” Anderson counters.

Payer said although there occasionally are poor years for
reproduction (2004 is expected to be one of those because of cold
spring weather), Leech’s spawners have produced good year-classes
that haven’t turned out that way. He said the department is
considering stocking “marked” fry in the lake. That would better
enable researchers to find out what’s happening between “egg
deposition and getting fish up to 16 to 17 inches,” he said. A DNR
press release on Tuesday indicated the stocking would occur in
2005.

DNR officials say Leech hasn’t had a good walleye year-class
since 1997. Perch numbers also appear to have dipped.

Anderson said that whatever efforts are made to improve Leech
Lake’s walleye and perch fisheries, they’ll likely take time.

“We are going to make some changes in this lake, and we want
them to be positive changes,” he said. “But things are not just
going to snap into place the next day.”

Anderson said another meeting of the steering committee composed
of state, tribal, and local officials will occur later this
month.

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