Legislation sparked by unpopular bird could have far-reaching impact, critics say.
In mid-July, wildlife officers went to Millwood Lake in southwest Arkansas and blasted out of their nests 80 baby double-crested cormorants and their parents. They then turned their guns on the cypress trees to destroy 95 nests. In all, the take was 193 birds and six eggs.
This was done, according to a field report filed by Mike Hoy, district supervisor of the Wildlife Services program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to "reduce cormorant impact on sportfish resources and reduce damage to cypress trees on Millwood Lake." The report also noted, "the Arkansas aquaculture industry has been concerned that the continued growth of this breeding colony could expand the presence of resident cormorants to other regions of the state."
The irony that a bird native to Arkansas is being shot for nesting at a man-made lake stocked with a Florida strain of bass has not been lost on many biologists, who have found the report appalling - and ridiculous.
That idea that killing 200 birds could somehow impact the fishing, today or tomorrow, on the 30,000-acre Millwood Lake is "ludicrous," state Audubon Society chapter spokesman Herschel Raney said last week.
The suggestion that Wildlife Services acted to protect cypress trees was also met with derision from several ecologists, who noted that it is to their greater detriment that the cypress are standing in permanent water in the lake, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The birds were killed under a standing order of U.S. Fish and Wildlife (an Interior Department agency) that allows any number of cormorants to be killed in Arkansas. The national Audubon Society and a chorus of conservation agencies, including Ducks Unlimited, the National Wildlife Federation and the American Bird Conservancy, have argued against the order, saying no research exists to show that cormorants are harming sportfish.
"There is no good science for this to be occurring," said director Ken Smith of Audubon Arkansas, the field office of the national Society. He noted that species was extirpated from Arkansas 30 years ago, and is just now returning to its historical habitat here. "Destroying nesting birds could be putting the species back at risk," he said.
Biologists and naturalists are also worried that the kill order puts at risk anhingas, a rare bird that resembles the cormorant and whose range overlaps in southwest Arkansas. The neotropic cormorant, far rarer than the anhinga but nearly impossible to distinguish from the double-crested by any but an expert, may be in danger.
But scientists who worry about Wildlife Services' judgment have a bigger concern: new legislation proposed by Arkansas congressmen that would allow the USDA - an agency more concerned with business than conservation - to bypass Fish and Wildlife to issue its own permits to kill migratory birds.
House Resolution 3320, sponsored by Arkansas Democrats Marion Berry and Mike Ross and Mississippi Republican Charles Pickering, would exempt the USDA's "management activities" from the National Environmental Protection Act - meaning the agency would not have to conduct environmental studies or get public input before it issued permits.
Cormorants, big, slick black birds shaped like bowling pins, have had a hard time winning friends, thanks to their bad reputation as fish farm feeders. They are in their greatest number in Arkansas in winter, when they travel from the Great Lakes to take advantage of the bounty that Southern fishponds offer.
But passage of HR 3320 could make it "open season," Smith and others have said, on other migratory birds as well, and these have bigger fan clubs than cormorants.
Currently dining at Arkansas fish farms are great egrets, snowy egrets (which appear on U.S. postage stamps in celebration of their comeback after the feather trade was outlawed), great blue herons and little blue herons. Pelicans and gulls, too, feed at fish farms and lakes.
Permitted fish farmers may now kill these birds, too, in numbers relating to the size of their farms. The new legislation would mean these farmers could go to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of USDA for permits, rather than Fish and Wildlife, which requires environmental studies.
According to testimony before Congress, APHIS has had to back off plans to poison 2 million red-winged blackbirds in South Dakota, acknowledge its take of vultures in Virginia was too high, and stop the killing of Caspian terns feeding at dams and salmon hatcheries in Washington State, thanks to scientific data submitted by opponents. In Washington, APHIS allows the shooting of thousands of migratory birds, including great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, common mergansers, gulls of several species, grebes and cormorants - kills that American Bird Conservancy policymaker Gerald Winegrad testified are being done "without any research-based evidence that the birds are causing any effects on adult returns of salmon."
Mike Freeze, owner of Keo Fish Farms and a state Game and Fish commissioner, supports HR 3320, saying it will shorten the time it takes farmers to get permits. "It's a disjunct system" bogged down in bureaucracy, Freeze said, citing as an example that Game and Fish applied for bird control permits at all its hatcheries, but has only received one. "When we asked how come, Fish and Wildlife said they didn't get the information [on the other hatcheries] until two weeks ago."
Audubon chapter spokesman Raney also suggested that APHIS' Wildlife Services, by killing cormorants many miles away from the from the state's fish farming areas, has "stretched" the rules set forth in the depredation order.
But Freeze said destroying the nesting birds was necessary to keep the breeding population from expanding on Millwood and turning into a year-round problem - "our worst nightmare." Game and Fish cooperated with the cormorant kill at Millwood.
Freeze acknowledged that information on cormorant impact on sportfishing is "anecdotal." But, he added, "a gut feeling tells us they are having an impact."
Ironically, research done by another arm of the USDA, the Agricultural Research Service, has found that, on Lake Chicot at least, wintering cormorants had little or no effect on sportfish there, choosing gizzard shad and yellow bass over largemouth bass and crappie. (This was their diet during one season, however.)
An ARS study also found that a non-lethal method to reduce cormorant fishing on catfish ponds was "cost-efficient and easy to set up."
Allan Mueller of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Conway, says the fish farmers have "legitimate concerns." On the other hand, he said, it's appropriate to ask if cormorant control shouldn't be considered as a cost of doing business. "Both points have a certain validity."
Freeze's point of view is that predator control "starts out as a cost of doing business." But when populations jump, fish farmers need help.
As a hybrid bass and carp grower, Freeze doesn't have the problems with cormorants that catfish farmers have. But still, he said, he has an employee whose only job is to get rid of the birds that do take his fish. Freeze has permits to kill 400 great blue herons, 400 great egrets, 100 coots, 100 white pelicans and five snowy egrets this year.
"Killing [alone] is not the answer," Freeze said. But it takes killing to reinforce the non-lethal methods - screamers and bangers (fireworks) and propane cannons - that fish farmers use to good effect.
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