Cormorants

Cormorants perched on the Astoria Bridge.

A new federal rule gives states and tribes greater flexibility to kill double-crested cormorants for management purposes.

Under the new rule, up to 121,504 double-crested cormorants may be killed per year nationally in areas under the jurisdiction of state and federally recognized tribal wildlife agencies that may have been off limits before. Conservation groups worry about the overall impact to the population. Others say the permit is necessary to deal with problem birds and protect state resources and salmon.

Agencies interested in the permit must show they tried other, nonlethal methods first. The permit will allow the fish-eating birds to be killed at sites in the 48 states where cormorants are shown to pose a danger to endangered or threatened species, where they impact health and human safety or are damaging state or tribal property and assets, among others factors.

“The Trump administration is providing tools under this coordinated approach for managing conflicts and economic damage associated with double-crested cormorants while minimizing the regulatory burden on federal, tribal and state agencies and individual citizens,” Aurelia Skipwith, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement.

“This special permit will help minimize human-wildlife conflicts while maintaining sustainable cormorant populations as required by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” she added.

In comments the Fish and Wildlife Service received on its proposal earlier this year, some organizations and state agencies suggested the model the federal government used to evaluate allowable annual take was politically driven and not based on science.

“Similarly, states also commented that regional and continental cormorant populations should be managed sustainably and adaptively, potentially at lower levels,” the Fish and Wildlife Service noted in a summary of the public comments.

The agency had earlier determined it could allow upward of 160,000 birds to be taken nationally, but went with a lower number as a precaution.

Along with proponents of the new rule, the agency also argued that research demonstrates “cormorants can negatively impact fish at certain locations and times, thus there has been a demand among fisheries biologists for management options.”

Five-year review

Under the new rule, the agency will conduct a five-year review of the take limit — something others voiced concerns about in their public comments, saying such reviews should happen more frequently.

On the North Coast, cormorant management has been a fraught undertaking. New developments continue to emerge following intensive and lethal federal management of a colony that nested seasonally on an island near the mouth of the Columbia River.

After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began shooting adult double-crested cormorants and destroying nests on Oregon’s East Sand Island in 2015, thousands of birds abandoned their nests multiple times and flocked to the Astoria Bridge.

This year, state biologists recorded around 5,000 breeding pairs nesting on the bridge — up from roughly 3,542 in 2019, which itself was already a significant increase from the 333 pairs noted annually in prior years.

The Army Corps has argued that the East Sand Island colony, once the largest in North America, threatened runs of young endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead. However, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife now estimates that the growing bridge colony may have more of an impact on salmon mortality than the former East Sand Island colony did.

The number of birds nesting on the bridge also complicates federally required inspections of the structure. The proliferation of nests and the accumulation of bird guano make it difficult for inspectors to examine the bridge.

Hazing

The state attempted to haze birds off the bridge ahead of inspections earlier this year to mixed results. A depredation permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service allows the Oregon Department of Transportation to take up to 1,500 nests from the bridge, but as the colony swells, it could be a challenging and “perhaps unlikely task” to conduct inspections without taking more nests than permitted, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife staff concluded in a report to the state fish and wildlife commission.

They recommended implementing a hazing plan to dissuade birds before they had an opportunity to nest. Cormorants are seasonal visitors to the the Columbia River estuary. The hazing could also provide an opportunity to attract the birds back to their abandoned colony on East Sand Island, state staff noted, though such a plan may be cost-prohibitive.

This year, the state approached the Army Corps and asked the agency to attempt to attract cormorants back to East Sand Island while bridge inspections were underway and again during bridge maintenance scheduled to begin next year. The Army Corps declined to help.

“Further, the Corps has previously stated it has no authority to address the cormorant issue on (the Astoria Bridge) in general and thus could not assist (the Oregon Department of Transportation) to attempt to push cormorants back to East Sand Island,” a fish and wildlife report from earlier this year states.

“The available data suggest moving double-crested cormorants back to East Sand Island would appreciably reduce cormorant consumption of federal and state (Endangered Species Act)-listed salmonids, the primary goal of the original federal management plan for East Sand Island,” the report continues.

With the cormorant dispersal to the bridge, fish and wildlife staff said they estimated the original federal plan “may have resulted in no change or even an increase in cormorant consumption of salmonids in the Columbia River estuary.”

The state hopes to implement a hazing plan this year ahead of the nesting season. Details have yet to be finalized. The new permit would not provide any additional tools, but may allow for a higher nest take if necessary, said James Lawonn, a biologist in charge of avian predation for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Hazing, however, is the department’s preferred approach for now.

“We would rather not have to take any birds,” Lawonn said. “Best practices are to try to reduce take as much as you can and we stand behind that. We don’t want to be taking birds if we don’t have to.”

The Army Corps is no longer conducting any active cormorant management on East Sand Island, but has provided nesting habitat that could support approximately 6,000 nesting pairs of cormorants.

The agency continues to monitor the island using Civil Air Patrol photos.

According to a spokesman for the agency, those photos have shown a “mostly empty island with occasional eagles and gulls scavenging on the tidal flats.”

Katie Frankowicz is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact her at 971-704-1723 or kfrankowicz@dailyastorian.com.