2017-03-30 / News

Cormorant Control Is Needed Again at Les Cheneaux Islands, Several Local Organizations Say

By Erich T. Doerr

The issue of migrating cormorant birds nesting in the Les Cheneaux Islands remains a concern for residents in Clark Township. The township, Les Cheneaux Islands Association, Les Cheneaux Chamber of Commerce, Islands Wildlife Association, and Les Cheneaux Watershed Council are lobbying to restart population control to keep the birds in check. Demographics and economic impact is being compiled legal action is under consideration.

Cormorant control was carried out in the Les Cheneaux area from 2004 until May 26, 2016, when the depredation permit allowing the work was taken away by a federal court. The court agreed with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) that the environmental analysis required to justify killing the birds had not been updated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the issue being a result of procedural errors.

Cormorants are considered a pest in the Les Cheneaux area because of the large amount of fish they consume, resulting in damage to the local fishery and the sport fishing economy.

Clark Township Supervisor Gary Reid is one of those in is favor of resuming population control.

“We’re trying to work it out through the system,” he said. “It’s aggravating that we have a group that has gone to this length to potentially adversely impact our community.”

Mark Engle is involved with the push for control as both the manager of Les Cheneaux Islands Association and owner of Les Cheneaux Landing. He sent a letter to the federal judge to argue that some of the evidence used in the case was old or not relevant to the Les Cheneaux area. He wants the case revisited with new evidence from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries on the birds’ environmental and economic effect on the area being considered. The judge has told him it would be difficult to change the decision, as doing so would require PEER and the wildlife service to come back into court to work out a new agreement.

The DNR is also acquiring its own permit for cormorant control. For now, the Les Cheneaux organizations are holding off on definitive action until they find out how this campaign turns out. If the DNR effort fails, the Les Cheneaux organizations may partner with other organizations outside the area to work on bringing more attention to their cause. Mr. Engle emphasizes that a lawsuit would be a last-resort.

A major stumbling block toward any cormorant control campaign is the bird’s federal protected status. The birds were previously endangered. Like many others, they struggled with the effects of the pesticide DDT in the 1960s, but their population has since recovered. Today, cormorants are protected instead by a migratory bird act.

“The intent of that bird act was probably good, but it might be time to drop these cormorants out of it,” Mr. Engle said. “They aren’t even close to endangered.”

Attempting to decrease the population without a permit would lead to fines and a confiscation of equipment, but a number of tactics could be used with federal consent. Mr. Engle noted one effective and relatively humane route is applying vegetable oil to the eggs, which suffocates the embryo. The action assures the eggs never hatch, but because it doesn’t destroy the egg, the mother bird doesn’t lay additional eggs. He said the goal is not to drive the birds to extinction but to manage the population.

Mr. Reid is one of those in favor of culling the birds. They migrate here, he said, so are not indigenous. Mr. Engle said shooting birds doesn’t seriously control their population. In earlier programs, some cormorants were shot for research purposes, but the difficulty in shooting them and their reputation for getting away easily means doing so on a large scale would not work.

Mr. Engle said the cormorant presence makes it difficult to stabilize local fish populations. The birds’ arrival in the area each spring often coincides with the perch spawning season. This hurts the area economy, as many of the area’s jobs are seasonal and connected to tourism, much of which is driven by fishing. Mr. Engle said previous control efforts did well to keep the birds in check, and the fishery had all but recovered to normal levels within four years of it starting.

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