Program targets pesky cormorants
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Sunday, 22 April 2007 18:31

Ten years ago, people who lived in Mackinac County called Brevort Lake the Dead Sea, an ironic reference to a once-thriving perch fishery that had been wiped out by an onslaught of fish-eating birds called cormorants.

Today, as a federally sanction cormorant harassment and shooting program gets under way with the returning spring migration of the big, black birds, Jimmie C. Miller said, "Oh, my goodness. You wouldn't believe how quickly the perch have come back. And in just two short years, we're seeing businesses coming back to life and new ones being opened because the perch are bringing tourists back to the lake again."

Under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife management office, Miller leads a group of volunteers in the program. They have spent the past two summers chasing cormorants around Brevort Lake with firecrackers and shooting several hundred of them in an effort to convince the birds that life is better and healthier elsewhere.

Last year, there were still an estimated 12,000-14,000 cormorants on Brevort, he said, but that was a huge improvement over the 40,000 feeding there in 2004.

"What was happening was that the perch never got a chance to grow up. Cormorants like fish that are 5 to 8 inches long. ...

"It may sound funny, but we've taught them that when they hear a boat motor or even a door slam, pretty soon somebody will be along to throw a pyrotechnic or shoot at them, and they skedaddle," Miller said.

Cormorants will be the subject of a May 19 legislative committee hearing headed by State Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch, who will look into what the state can do to help reduce the bird's numbers in areas where they have had a deleterious effect on angling.

One problem is that while anglers despise them, many bird fanciers see the cormorants as a welcome addition, and animal rights activists have filed a lawsuit to stop them from being killed or harassed.

Said Pete Butchko, who works for the U.S. Agriculture Departments wildlife control office in Okemos: "It's been a difficult process, and not just here in Michigan. We fight the same battles in other states. One big problem is the funding. Congress has come through with a $160,000 appropriation for a study of cormorants on the Beaver Islands. We are going to start oiling eggs (to prevent them hatching) and doing lethal control on a selected percentage of adult birds.

"But now we understand that Michigan may have changed its mind about the $150,000 it said it would put up. That's a significant amount, not something we can make up for by buying fewer paper clips."

Cormorant numbers on the Great Lakes have increased over a thousand-fold, that's 100,000% in the last 30 years, according to Butchko.

Estimates of their numbers range from 500,000 on up. Thunder Bay on Lake Huron once produced about 10-15 pounds of fish per acre, but that figure has dropped to about a half-pound per acre, says Jim Johnson, a research biologist at the DNR's Lake Huron Research Station.

Cormorant predation played a major role in that decrease, he said, and species like whitefish, yellow perch and smallmouth bass that were abundant 10 years ago have virtually disappeared.
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