Government hunters have begun scouting an island at the mouth of the Columbia River as they prepare to shoot thousands of hungry seabirds to stop them from eating baby salmon.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Diana Fredlund said hunters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services agency went to a small uninhabited island off Ilwaco, Washington, on Thursday to survey the land before carrying out plans to reduce the population of double crested cormorants from about 14,000 breeding pairs to 5,600 pairs by 2018.
Double crested cormorants are large black birds with long necks, hooked bills and webbed feet that dive beneath the surface to eat small fish.
Wildlife Services is slated to file a plan with the corps next week before starting to kill the birds.
An environmental impact statement calls for them to shoot adult birds, spray eggs with oil so they won't hatch, and destroy nests. Carcasses of dead birds will be donated to educational and scientific institutions, or otherwise disposed of through burial or incineration.
Biologists blame the cormorants for eating an average 12 million baby salmon a year as they migrate down the Columbia to the ocean. Some of the fish are federally protected species.
The cormorant population on East Sand Island near Ilwaco, Washington, has grown from about 100 pairs in 1989 to some 14,000 pairs now, making it the largest cormorant nesting colony in the West. Soil dredged from the bottom of the Columbia to deepen shipping channels was dumped on the island over the years, expanding the area available for nesting.
Conservation groups failed in a bid to get a federal judge to stop the killing, arguing dams on the Columbia kill far more young salmon than the birds do.
Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Portland Audubon Society, said Wildlife Services and the corps should hold off for this year after getting started two months later than recommended. The late start would increase the suffering of the birds by producing more chicks that starve to death after their parents are killed.
"I think this demonstrates a remarkable level of indifference and ineptitude," he said.
Cormorants are the latest birds targeted for eating baby salmon. Biologists pushed Caspian terns off Rice Island in the Columbia, and created nesting habitat in lakes in eastern Oregon and San Francisco Bay to draw them away from the mouth of the Columbia.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife also has been shooting and harassing cormorants on coastal rivers to protect salmon.
Sea lions are also killed to reduce the numbers of adult salmon eaten as they wait to go over the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam in the Columbia.