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New rules expected shortly: Illusion of cormorant management

Any day now, the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service will issue final rules on population control and management of double-crested cormorants. The rules will take effect in 2004. Unless a major rewrite has been made to the draft plan (and those following the action closely say that hasn't happened), few will be happy.

Basically, the new rules transfer the management of cormorants to Indian tribes, state game and fish agencies and USDA's Wildlife Services. But to the consternation of the aquaculture industry, sportsmen's and citizen's groups and others, the Fish and Wildlife Service will maintain authority over all. And sure to be another bitter pill: while the Fish and Wildlife Service has made the management assignment, it will allot no money to accomplish it.

“FWS isn't coming up with a national management plan. What they're doing is trying to pass a hot potato that has caused them a lot of embarrassment,” says Mike Freeze, Arkansas Game and Fish commissioner and manager of Keo Fish Farms in Arkansas.

“When you manage a resource — like FWS has done for decades in this case — you can't just let it reproduce at an unchecked rate and allow it to negatively impact other resources. When that happens, people start getting very upset. Especially if the problem is allowed to fester for years like it has.”

Freeze got into fish farming in 1984. It didn't take long to figure out cormorants were hurting business. He's been urging the FWS to come up with a cormorant management program since the late 1980s.

“Wildlife Services came up with a plan about 15 years ago. But they're hamstrung because FWS won't let them operate. It was five years later before the FWS would even look at the issue. The only reason they're even addressing it now is because sportsmen's groups, aquaculture and a host of others folks are angry with them over this,” says Freeze.

Controlling the sandbox

It's against human nature to relinquish control. Watch the only toddler in a sandbox holding a toy spade: even with other kids kicking and screaming for it, no way he turns loose of the plastic shovel.

Along those same lines, critics claim FWS doesn't want the blame for cormorant overpopulation nor the burden of managing the birds, but still wants to hold on to the toy shovel. Give us the authority, say the critics, and we'll right the cormorant problem in quick fashion.

“The new rules leave FWS with oversight authority. So they can let you start doing something and if our efforts begin paying off, they can simply say, ‘No, stop. You need to do more monitoring, and we're requiring you to set up an elaborate monitoring program before you can go back to doing this,’” says Thurman Booth, who heads Arkansas' Wildlife Services.

In the monitoring section of the new rules, Booth says, FWS has inserted enough language to block anything it doesn't like. What this amounts to, he claims, is yet another “delaying tactic” — a term heard repeatedly when talking to those upset with FWS.

The only way the new rules will work is if FWS actually allows state agencies to actively manage the cormorants, say both Freeze and Booth.

“If they leave us alone to do our work, it could fix things,” says Freeze. “But their track record in such things is, unfortunately, abysmal. If their track record is any indication, this is simply another delaying tactic.”

Those wanting the cormorant problem addressed are seemingly in a constant holding pattern. Booth insists that's no accident as delay is the favorite tactic employed by FWS for years.

“Several years ago, they claimed there weren't too many cormorants. Well, they then realized that line wasn't working anymore because everyone knows there's too many cormorants. So — and in my opinion it was excellent strategic planning on their part — they sat down and methodically figured out how best to delay the killing of these birds.”

FWS' delays have worked brilliantly and the new rules are simply an extension of that, he says.

When 2004 arrives and WS employees want to kill cormorants (mainly through night roost shootings), FWS will reference the rule on monitoring, says Booth. “They'll say, ‘We figure to understand the ecology of those wetland areas and lake, it'll take a five-year study that'll cost $10 million. Good luck finding that $10 million. And if you can't find the $10 million, well, we can't let you shoot the birds.’ That's what will happen because it's happened before. These folks are nothing if not predictable.”

Regarding money, Freeze is also concerned. “As a state game and fish commissioner, the problem I have with this is it's an unfunded mandate. FWS wants us to take over regulatory aspects, but they won't tell us how to do it and they won't provide us funds either,” he says.

Back to Millwood Lake

Once a favorite haunt of fishermen, Arkansas' Millwood Lake is now depleted of fish and the shops and services that cater to anglers. It's no coincidence that fish populations plummeted when cormorants, a species that normally migrates much like geese or ducks, took up permanent residence on the lake's appealing shores.

Several years ago, Booth and colleagues had killed enough resident cormorants on Millwood Lake to drop nest numbers from 100 to around 40. But after having their depredation permits revoked by FWS, WS has been forced to watch nest numbers at the Texarkana-area lake build back up.

“There were 100 nests back on Millwood Lake last year,” says Booth. “I think nest numbers will be 125 now, but it could be more. We haven't been down there yet to do a proper count.”

As soon as the new FWS draft rule came out — “which, according to FWS will allow us to go back in to Millwood and kill some of the cormorants” — Booth wrote the head of the Atlanta FWS regional office and asked “how serious” they were.

“If they really meant we could go back in there in 2004, I wanted assurances that we can do what needs doing. FWS responded that such assurances would be premature. So we won't be able to take care of the Millwood population again this summer. And I can almost assure you that when 2004 rolls around, FWS will cite yet another reason to prevent us from killing cormorants. They'll probably want more monitoring done.”

Freeze says the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is “incredibly concerned” about how the resident birds could impact the state.

“Our entire fisheries are in jeopardy,” says Freeze. “And, as a fish farmer, the impact could be felt even more acutely and immediately on my livelihood. Right now, we have cormorants around our ponds for half the year. If a resident population starts reproducing like their migrating brothers have, we — actually the South — could be facing a major catastrophe in short order.”

High frustration

At the end of the nesting season last year, Booth says, WS suspected there had been some “local control” going on around Millwood Lake because some dead cormorants were found. If that's the case, Booth was proven prophetic.

“I hate to see people forced into vigilantism, but I do understand their frustration,” he says.

Freeze isn't surprised either.

“I'm not an advocate of what they did, but some commercial fishermen on the Great Lakes took matters into their own hands,” says Freeze. “They went in and killed a bunch of baby cormorants and destroyed nests. It was somewhat ironic that those men were nearly sent to a federal penitentiary and paid severe fines because two years later, the FWS issued some permits allowing exactly what these fishermen did.

“The frustration level is high and getting higher. I think some people, if the FWS isn't going to step up to the plate and actively manage the species, will turn vigilante. Why can't FWS come up with high and low numbers that the cormorant population should stay within? There are all kinds of mechanisms that could be employed to keep the population within those numbers.”

De-listing the species

Freeze isn't opposed to states taking over management of cormorants. But he says the proper way to do that is for FWS to de-list the cormorants from the Endangered Species List.

“According to the Endangered Species Act,” says Freeze, “when a species recovers, it's supposed to be taken off the list or downgraded to a lesser level of protection. The best approach, I think, would have been for the FWS to have de-listed the species.

“I'm worried about what the FWS will allow state agencies to do with the birds. For instance, if in Arkansas we decide we want a hunting season on cormorants that corresponds to duck season, will they tell us no? Will they allow it? If they want us to manage the problem, they should allow it.”

Truly loosening rules?

With the latest rules, Booth says, FWS has made many — “particularly folks on the periphery of the issue” — believe they are loosening regulations.

“A lot of people think this is a great break we're being given by FWS,” says Booth. “Until they go out and try to control these birds, they'll probably keep thinking that.”

Politicians are well aware of what's going on, say the men.

“But it's like everything else: it's got to get bad enough before it's fixed,” says Booth. “I'm afraid that cormorants are going to have to get out of control before people in power hear us and finally do something. FWS just isn't going to do its job — the authority must be passed on to someone else.

“Because things get bottled up in the courts, I've been convinced for some time that Congress is the only place that this can be fixed. Unfortunately, the Iraq war has put domestic issues like this on the back-burner. And politicians know that if they go to open-floor debate with this, legislation will be facing a hard battle. If they brought this to the floor, PETA, the Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife and all the rest will come out of the woodwork.”

“Look, instead of tackling the problem and fixing it once and for all, FWS has just pulled out another Band-Aid,” says Freeze. “Unfortunately, that's nothing new.”

e-mail: [email protected].

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