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Fish And Wildlife Service May Appeal Judge's Ruling On Cormorants


A judge in Washington, D.C., has shut down a program that allowed some migratory birds to be killed in large numbers across the Eastern United States. The court says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not prove that killing cormorants is necessary. That news was not welcome in some Great Lakes communities that have been battling cormorant colonies for years.

Peter Payette of Interlochen Public Radio reports.

PETER PAYETTE, BYLINE: People have hated cormorants for a long time. When the English poet John Milton imagined Satan in the Garden of Eden, he made him a cormorant. And that makes sense to Jim Ludwig.

JIM LUDWIG: Because in the breeding plumage, these things stick out - the feathers stick out of the head and they look like they have horns. Devils have horns.

PAYETTE: Ludwig's an ornithologist who studied double-crested cormorants in the Great Lakes for decades. He's long seen a dislike for cormorants and other black birds like crows and ravens. But Mark Engle's problem with the shorebird has more to do with behavior than looks. He's watched flocks of cormorants descend on shallow water where perch are spawning.

MARK ENGLE: You could kind of watch. They kind of drive them into the corner of a bay or shallow area and just, you know, just going crazy on these fish.

PAYETTE: Engle owns a resort in the Les Cheneaux Islands in northern Lake Huron. It's been a fishing destination for generations. In fact, some of his log cabins were built more than a hundred years ago.

ENGLE: Which are - were pretty good construction, considering these guys didn't have power tools or anything.

PAYETTE: Many of Engle's customers are fishermen. And when the number of cormorants in this area exploded 20 years ago, the perch all but disappeared. Engle says that was a blow because perch fishing doesn't require a lot of expensive gear. And anyone can do it.

ENGLE: Kids can catch perch. So that was a huge attraction. Go on a family vacation and go perch fishing. And when that was out of the equation, we suffered. We suffered big time.

PAYETTE: That's why this area was one of the first in the country to use lethal measures to control cormorants, mostly oiling eggs to prevent birds from hatching. The number of birds that nest here now is a small fraction of what it was. And they tend to stay in the remote corners of the islands.

But the ruling from a federal judge last month has ended control programs stretching from the Great Lakes to Texas. The judge agreed with researchers like Ludwig that there's not enough science to support widespread killings.

LUDWIG: When you put forth a regulation that allows people to kill cormorants in 24 states, essentially without regulation, it's a real problem.

PAYETTE: Ludwig just finished a trip across Lake Huron counting cormorant nests. He says in 1995, he counted nearly 15,000 nesting pairs. Now he's finding fewer than 2,000.

LUDWIG: That's a huge reduction. That's well over 80 percent reduction in the population.

PAYETTE: But David Altmaier says there are still plenty of birds out here. He's helped kill cormorants in the Les Cheneaux Islands where he lives.

DAVID ALTMAIER: I think a lot of people have the impression that they're trying to drive them to extinction. And that's so far from the truth. It would be impossible.

PAYETTE: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could appeal the court ruling. But for now, nobody can legally kill a cormorant in these islands or just about anywhere else. If that doesn't change, residents here expect the birds to be back in large numbers within two years. For NPR News, I'm Peter Payette. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Payette
Peter Payette is the Executive Director of Interlochen Public Radio and has managed the news department since 2001. For more than a decade, he hosted the weekly program Points North and has reported on a wide range of issues critical to the culture and economy of northern Michigan. His work has been featured on NPR, Michigan Radio, Bridge magazine and Edible Grande Traverse. He has taught journalism and radio production to students and adults at Interlochen Center for the Arts. He is also working on a book about the use of aquaculture to manage Great Lakes fisheries, particularly the use of salmon from the Pacific Ocean to create a sport fishery in the 1960s.