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Potential new cormorant management plan released

The double-crested cormorant is a protected species blamed for declining fish populations in some places. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo)

LANSING — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has crafted a new plan to address double-crested cormorant conflicts.

It proposes to allow killing as many as 77,000 of the migratory birds in the Mississippi and Central flyways each year. That covers 24 states, including Michigan.

The agency estimates the population in the region at about 500,000 migrating cormorants, which nest in Canada, the Great Lakes and other parts of the Upper Midwest.

The double-crested cormorant is a protected species of waterbird that has historically created problems for shoreline communities. They destroy vegetation and are blamed for declining fish populations in some places, critics say.

The new proposal from the FWS addresses the question of cormorant effects on wild fish.

“They’re very good at catching fish. They eat about a pound a day,” said Rachel Pierce, a waterbird biologist with the FWS.

The FWS released its plan June 5 in the form of a draft environmental impact statement. The draft offers five plans of action, four of which would permit killing as many as 123,157 cormorants nationwide.

The goal is not to lower the cormorant population, Pierce said. Rather, that number should be just enough to address local conflicts while making sure the population is sustained.

With about 60,000 cormorants nesting in the Great Lakes region, the species raises the ire of many local sport anglers. The FWS does not agree with claims the birds cause widespread harm to wild fisheries, but it acknowledges problems in certain places like the Les Cheneaux Islands and Mackinac County’s Brevoort Lake.

Although the FWS’s approach may be conservative, Randy Claramunt of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said it would allow lethal control to protect fish and would be a step in the right direction.

“Even if it is not at the level of control that fisheries managers desire, it is a substantial improvement over past approaches,” Claramunt said.

During the period of the last control order from 2003-16, the FWS was accused of having no real hold on the cormorant situation. Pierce says states were deputizing citizens and not requiring them to report how many birds they killed.

“That was definitely on us,” Pierce said. “But since then, I think we’ve been very careful and mindful of how we move forward.”

The control program was effective in Michigan, reducing the number of nesting birds to a third over a decade. But problems with federal management led to a lawsuit, and a judge closed the program in 2016.

This time, the FWS’s preferred plan of action would give the states a cap on how many birds each can take. The agency also plans to create a detailed monitoring system to make sure that all states take birds within their specified limits.

Cassidy Hough reports for Interlochen Public Radio, where this story first appeared, and for Great Lakes Echo. Pater Payette reports for Interlochen Public Radio.

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