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Fish-Gobbling Water Birds Could Lose Protected Status

Federal agency considers allowing 24 states and Indian tribes to kill off cormorants, which can damage vegetation.

May 25, 2003|Mike Tyree | Associated Press Writer

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich — TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Double-crested cormorants, the fish-gobbling water birds widely despised by fishing groups and resort operators, may soon find Michigan's waters less hospitable.

Skyrocketing cormorant populations have prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose lifting some federal protections, meaning that Michigan and 23 other states may be able to kill cormorants in areas where the birds damage fish and vegetation.

Cormorants have been federally protected since the early 1970s, when pesticides and humans threatened their existence. Since then, the hook-billed, diving birds have rebounded dramatically, with their North American population estimated at 2 million.

"The cormorant has had a significant [negative] effect in some areas," said Paul Schmidt, assistant director of migratory birds with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under the proposal, the 24 states, American Indian tribes and the U.S. Department of Agriculture may devise plans to kill cormorants by destroying eggs and shooting birds. The states must inform federal authorities of their plans and provide information about the number of birds killed, Schmidt said.

"We recognize that cormorants are a problem, both biologically and sociologically, in several parts of the state," said Brad Wurfel, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

He said the four-agency partnership is necessary to develop a cormorant management plan. He also accused federal officials of occasionally dumping programs on states "without any funding and with restrictions that made the programs unworkable."

Schmidt said the program is not meant to be a burden but a tool that states can use.

"I recognize states are not going to be in a position to do everything they want to do," he said.

Cormorants are hated in many northern Michigan communities. Each bird can gulp a pound of fish per day, and their highly acidic waste destroys vegetation. Thousands of birds nest on northern Michigan islands.

State and federal authorities must continue to monitor cormorant numbers if a control plan is implemented.

Larry Lienczewski, a charter fisherman, motors his boat from Bay City to Oscoda every year and runs through thousands of cormorants, all feeding in the water.

"It's unbelievable. We see them all over the bay," he said. "I'd say in the last seven or eight years, it's really gotten out of hand."

Lienczewski believes that cormorants are at least partly to blame for the declining number of yellow perch and said cormorants also take a toll on islands that dot Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. The birds nest on the islands, and their waste is suspected of killing trees and vegetation.

"You can just see the old dead trees; the foliage is gone. It's just nasty," Lienczewski said.

Cormorants flock to Les Cheneaux Islands off the southeast Upper Peninsula coast, where thousands nest.

Brian Harrison, owner of the Great Outdoors bait and tackle shop in nearby Cedarville, accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of reacting too slowly to explosive cormorant population growth. He said the birds have devastated the yellow perch fishery while also muscling out blue herons, terns and plovers that used to nest on the islands.

"The people who actually make the decisions on these things are totally removed from the effect of [the cormorants]," he said.

"Ten years ago, I kind of thought it was a controllable thing," he said.

Today, he doubts whether locals will be able to kill enough birds to significantly reduce the population.

Schmidt said the proposal would allow the state to designate local groups to kill cormorants, a plan that should get plenty of support in Les Cheneaux Islands.

"There are a number of people up here, a lot of resort owners, who are really concerned about declining fish numbers," said Norm Perkins, a charter boat captain. "I believe you'd see a lot of people get involved [in killing cormorants]."

A 60-day public comment period on the cormorant proposal expired May 16. If adopted, Schmidt said, cormorant control measures could be in place by fall.

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