Judge puts cormorant management on hold

By Victor Skinner

Contributing Writer

Washington, D.C. – A recent federal court ruling has vacated depredation orders for double-crested cormorants in 24 states, including authority to cull the birds in areas of Michigan where they’ve negatively impacted the environment and fish populations.

The case centers on depredation orders – authority to kill cormorants – issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to states to control populations of the migratory birds, which fall under federal jurisdiction. Since 2004, Michigan has used the permits to remove birds from several sites in lakes Huron and Michigan where congregating cormorants destroyed the landscape with excrement and severely impacted fish populations, such as perch in the Les Cheneaux Islands and bass in the Beaver Islands.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently extended the Public Resource Depredation Order to authorize large numbers of cormorant culls, and the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued the agency alleging officials did not follow proper procedures in extending the order.

U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ruled in March that the USFWS did not craft a proper supplemental environmental impact statement for the extensions as required by federal law, and called for a “remediation plan” in the case. On May 25, Bates vacated the depredation order extensions, which were set to run until 2019. The ruling means states no longer have broad authority to remove large numbers of the birds, though they can still request permits on a much smaller scale.

As USFWS officials assess next steps – which could include a legal appeal or fresh process to extend the depredation orders -– workers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services who carry out cormorant culls in Michigan ceased work this season and state officials are coordinating with federal authorities to consider alternatives.

“We were just basically getting started and we really hadn’t gotten that far into it,” Tony Aderman, district supervisor for Wildlife Services, told Michigan Outdoor News. “Some were taken out of the Les Cheneaux Islands, but it was very few and we were just getting nest counts at other areas like Saginaw Bay.”

“Right now there is nothing we can do” other than continue nest counts to track populations, he said.

Michigan DNR all-bird specialist Karen Cleveland said state officials were anticipating a reduced cormorant cull in many areas this year after the management strategy and other factors reduced populations.

Takes were scheduled in the Les Cheneaux Islands, Beaver Islands, Bays de Noc, Thunder Bay, the Ludington pump storage facility, Saginaw Bay, Pointe Mouillee State Game Area and the Crow Island State Game Area for 2016, she said.

State officials are also working on a plan to expand cormorant removals to the Francisco Morazan shipwreck off South Manitou Island because a growing colony there is encroaching on ancient cedars.

Cleveland said culls are based on annual nest counts and colony quotas, so the number of birds killed changes from year to year and site by site. In 2015, officials initially requested a take of about 10,000 birds and actually removed just over 6,000.

And aside from culls on both ends of cormorants’ range – in Great Lakes states and southern states where they feed on aquaculture ponds – the declining aquaculture industry and alewife populations in Michigan have also contributed to lowering cormorant numbers, Cleveland said.

“The whole food chain they depended on crashed,” she said. “There could have been much worse timing for this.”

DNR fisheries research biologist Dave Fielder said the practice of killing cormorants in areas like the Les Cheneaux Islands has made a significant impact on restoring fish populations. When the state began removing birds there in 2004, peak counts topped 11,000 birds, and perch populations were dwindling, he said.

Over the decade the culls reduced the Les Cheneaux cormorants by 90 percent, and “all our indicators of the perch population responded favorably,” Fielder said, adding that other sites experienced similar results.

“The situation is kind of fluid and there are lots of unknowns” about the 2016 season, including what other management options – such as egg oiling and harassment – are still available, he said.

DNR researchers used a computer model, nest and take numbers and other data to estimate the impact a season without cormorant depredations would have on the population in the Les Cheneaux Islands, and came up with a projected a 29 percent increase, Fielder said.

“If the ability to manage cormorants comes back next year, we can bounce back from that,” he said, “but if it goes on much beyond that it could be a problem.”

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