The Conservation Column
By Juliet Grable

The Cormorants of East Sand Island

In April, Portland Audubon and the Center for Biological Diversity announced the release of a film called Scapegoat: The Cormorants of East Sand Island, by Portland filmmaker Trip Jennings. The film documents the Army Corps of Engineers’ war on the world’s largest Double-crested Cormorant colony, which is located on East Sand Island. You may view the video here:

East Sand Island is a 62-acre island located near the mouth of the Columbia River. The Army Corps of Engineers owns the island and has greatly modified it over the past many decades. Because it hosts large numbers of roosting and nesting colonial waterbirds, the American Bird Conservancy has designated the Island an Important Bird Area.

Since 2004, the East Sand Island Double-crested Cormorant colony has averaged 12,900 breeding pairs. The Army Corps targeted the colony because (according to the agency) the birds were consuming too many salmon smolts (juveniles)—up to 11 million in a single year. In 2015, the Army Corps received a permit to start killing cormorants and destroying nests (by oiling eggs) on East Sand Island. The agency hired Wildlife Services to do the dirty work. So far, Wildlife Services has shot over 5,000 cormorants and destroyed over 6,000 nests. The agency’s goal is to reduce the population to between 5,380 and 5,939 breeding pairs.

In spring of 2016, soon after Wildlife Services resumed the killing for the season, the cormorants began abandoning their nests. By late spring, all of the cormorants were gone. The gulls enjoyed a feeding frenzy, consuming every last egg. Some cormorants did return later in the summer and fall, but the colony failed to form in 2017.

The Army Corps claims this had nothing to do with the shooting and oiling, and instead says the birds fled because they were being harassed by an unusually large number of bald eagles. (Afraid the eagles would drive the cormorants further inland, where they might eat even more young salmon, the agency even dumped a whale carcass near East Sand Island, hoping to lure the eagles away.)

But Dr. Dan Roby, whose research group has monitored terns and cormorants on East Sand Island for many years, says harassment by eagles is not new, and that cormorants are very sensitive to human disturbance. He suspects that the human harassment combined with the eagles proved too much for them.

Dr. Roby also feels that the cormorant colony could have been reduced using non-lethal means, as was successfully demonstrated with a colony of Caspian Terns on the same island.
Because the cormorant colony has been so altered, the Army Corps announced that it would not be killing any birds in 2018. Instead, the agency applied for permits to destroy up to 500 eggs—if the birds return to the island—and plans to modify the nesting habitat to restrict access.

Here are some excerpts from a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity on the decision:
“We’re pleased the U.S. Army Corps has indicated it will stop shooting adult cormorants in 2018, but that doesn’t go nearly far enough,” said Portland Audubon Conservation Director Bob Sallinger. “The relentless killing and persecution of these cormorants over the past three years has put the world’s largest colony of cormorants at risk of permanent collapse and the entire western population of Double-crested Cormorants at risk. The agencies must stop all nest destruction, habitat modification and harassment at this colony and allow the colony to recover.”

While the agencies claim this project protects federally listed salmon, it is nothing more than a diversion from the real cause of salmon decline: the federal hydropower system. In a report that was hidden from the public until a court order forced its release, Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologists concluded that killing cormorants would do nothing to help recover salmon.

Five times in the last 20 years, federal courts have rejected federal agency plans for recovering salmon in the Columbia Basin because of their failure to adequately address the dams. Just this week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged the harm dams cause to listed salmon and steelhead, agreeing that dams on the Columbia River must release additional water to help the endangered fish.

What You Can Do:

  • Watch the video
  • Contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and tell them that their mission is to protect native wild birds, not to permit their wanton slaughter: 503-231-6120
  • Call USDA Wildlife Services (the agency actually doing the shooting) and tell them you oppose their killing of cormorants on East Sand Island as well as their lethal control programs, which result in the deaths of more than half a million birds every year: 503-326-2346
  • Call the U.S. Army Corps’ public affairs office at 503-808-4510 and let them know what you think of cormorant killing on East Sand Island.
  • Contact Governor Brown’s office and tell her you want the State of Oregon to promote non-lethal solutions to salmon recovery: