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Wildlife officials plan to cull thousands of state's cormorants
Associated Press
March 17, 2005 CORMORANTS0318

DULUTH, Minn. - Crews could start shooting thousands of cormorants and sterilizing their eggs on Leech Lake this summer as state and federal wildlife agencies try to mitigate the effect of the birds on the walleye population.
Lee Pfannmuller, director of ecological services for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said efforts could include rubbing vegetable oil on eggs. Adults will continue to sit on the eggs and won't try to re-nest, but the eggs never hatch.

A proposal to thin the population of the lake by thousands of birds was made in January and on Wednesday the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its environmental assessment of it.

The federal government will ask for public to comment over 30 days on a range of alternatives from doing nothing to using nonlethal methods of reducing the population of the birds, which eat about a pound of fish each day.

However, the federal government's preferred plan is to reduce by about 80 percent the number of nesting pairs on the lake from more than 2,500. The birds are normally protected by federal law.

"The preferred alternative's goal is to have fewer than 500 nesting pairs on Leech Lake,'' said Rachel Levin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Twin Cities.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe will take the lead on the project with cooperation from the Minnesota DNR federal Agriculture Department's animal damage control unit, which do the work.

Various methods have tried to control the numbers of the native birds, which have made a remarkable comeback in the past 20 years across the Great Lakes and Canada after DDT nearly wiped out the species.

Wildlife officials have tried to scare them away from their nesting grounds, but it didn't work. Last year crews tried to remove nesting materials from the birds' island "but their numbers still doubled,'' said John Ringle, fish and wildlife director for the Leech Lake Band.

There were nearly 10,000 cormorants on Leech Lake last year, including juveniles and non-nesting adults, nearly all of which nest on Little Pelican Island, located on Leech Lake band property.

The fish consumption of the birds is blamed by some angry anglers and tourist businesses for the depletion of the lakes once-famous walleye population. By some estimates, the birds could be eating more than a ton of fish a day.

"It's clear we have a problem. I fish the lake a lot and there aren't any smaller walleyes out there. Something is taking them out,'' Ringle said. "We know cormorants eat some walleye and perch. We don't know how much. ... But the fact the big drop in walleye hit at the same time the cormorants are increasing can't be just a coincidence.''

Officials said they weren't sure the big black birds were the main culprit for the walleye decline, but they had enough evidence to act.

"There's compelling enough evidence with the fisheries decline and the tern situation to warrant some strong action,'' Pfannmuller said.

An international migratory bird treaty protects the birds, but a 2003 federal rule allows states to take action to deplete the flocks if they are harming natural resources.

In Minnesota, the rule allows up to 7,500 of the 16,000 birds in the state to be killed.
 
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