May 27, 2005
Wildlife Officials Plan to Kill 4,000 Cormorants
WALKER, Minn. -- Chris Anderson is only half-joking when he offers a solution for the hungry cormorants that are eating the fish in Leech Lake - and taking money out of his pocket. "Kill them all," he says of the voracious, predatory birds.
At Anderson's Cove, Anderson's resort on the western edge of the lake, just three of 11 cabins were rented for this month's walleye opener, after six years of strong opening weekends. Over the next month alone, Anderson figures he'll lose $40,000 or more through mid-June because of cabins standing empty.
Word has spread that walleye fishing on Leech Lake, one of the state's premier lakes, isn't what it used to be. That means fewer people will be staying at its resorts or visiting this lakeside town where livelihoods are tied to the elusive and tasty catch, prized above all in a state where fishing is king.
"People need fish, plain and simple," said Larry Jacobson, owner of Hiawatha Beach Resort. "They need walleye."
Prodded by resort owners and fishing guides, wildlife officials have reached a dramatic decision: Over the summer, they will kill 4,000 or more of the diving birds.
Shauna Hanisch, who leads the Fish and Wildlife Service's cormorant project, acknowledges shooting the birds is the most drastic measure being taken to curb the populations in the United States. Other states, such as Michigan, New York and Vermont, are also dealing with burgeoning cormorant colonies, Hanisch said.
Some wildlife biologists and animal-rights groups oppose the plan, saying research about the bird and its eating habits is incomplete.
Although cormorants were nearly wiped out by the pesticide DDT in the 1960s and 1970s, the waterfowl has made enough of a comeback to pose a threat to commercial fishing and fish farming.
The large hook-billed birds are considered voracious fish-eaters, and they are prevalent throughout North America, with the highest concentrations in the Great Lakes area.
Anderson has heard several theories about the walleye's low numbers: poor water quality or development along the 110,000-acre lake. He dismisses them with a wave of his hand.
"It's the cormorants," Anderson said. "You should see it when 600 of them fly in here. The sky is black."
Last year, an estimated 10,000 cormorants were living on Leech Lake. Seven years ago, the lake had about 150. So far, about 2,200 of the birds have been shot and killed.
"I don't like doing it," said Harlan Fierstine, the area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "But we think there is enough science to justify this. It's about finding a balance between preservation and management. That's not easy."
Though cormorants are protected by an international migratory bird treaty, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service determined two years ago states could curb their numbers if they were harming natural resources.
Wildlife officials and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, which owns the island where the birds nest, did an environmental assessment, then agreed to shoot the cormorants. Some of the eggs also may be oiled to prevent them from hatching.
Francesca Cuthbert, a University of Minnesota professor, said the action on Leech Lake was "being made without good science." She said a comprehensive study of the birds' effect on the walleye was pushed aside in favor of the culling.
On a recent trip out to Little Pelican Island with reporters, Steve Mortensen, a fish and wildlife biologist for the Leech Lake band, said he regrets the bird's fate.
"It's a human thing. We are dealing with who is going to get the walleye," he said with a shrug. "That's the bottom line."
In downtown Walker, where people filed into The Outdoorsman Cafe, residents have felt the drop in tourism. A local business association found that reservations at Leech Lake resorts in May were down 90 percent from last year.
Randy Ehlenfeldt, owner of the True Value hardware store, hasn't sold as many fishing lures, water toys and air mattresses as in recent years.
"The walleye issue is a big part of it," he said. "Everyone feels it, from the restaurants to the gift shops."
On the Net:
Leech Lake: http://www.leechlake.org/
Fish & Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov/