January 17, 2015
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” – George Orwell
What happens when two federally protected species go head to head over habitat and limited natural resources? Who decides which species will be saved and which species will be eliminated? These questions have begun to surface with increasing frequency as federal agencies have been forced to take drastic measures in an attempt to save critically endangered species in the Pacific Northwest.
Historical competition between species is an intrinsic component to evolution. It is a natural process that predates humanity by billions of years, and one that will persist far past human existence. However, certain anthropogenic impacts have had a caustic influence on the rate of species loss, with some estimates ascribing an accelerated rate of extinction at 100 to 1,000 times faster than the rate of species loss before human existence. Faced with these facts, federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), the U.S. Army Core of Engineers (USACE), and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), have considered and in some cases piloted programs which systematically kill one federally protected species to protect another.
East Sand Island, Astoria, Oregon – 30,000 hungry cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) have gathered to feast upon the thousands of tiny coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) making the dangerous journey along the Columbia River to the mouth of the Pacific Ocean. Researchers tasked with the protection and management of salmon populations are concerned by the number of fish that never make it to the ocean, and instead end up in the mouths of the voracious cormorants. Scientists have estimated that the bird population on East Sand Island consumes approximately 25 million smolts, or 20% of all juvenile salmon and steelhead swimming down the Columbia River, and each individual cormorant can eat up to 2lbs of fish a day.
The massive population of birds migrated to East Sand Island and other similar locations along river mouths of the Pacific Northwest approximately 15 years ago. Scientists believe the birds settled here due to the rebounding salmon population. Today, in a drastic attempt to save the struggling salmon population, the USACE is considering controlling (primarily through trapping & shooting) the East Sand Island bird/cormorant population by approximately 4,000 birds a year. From 2015-2018, their goal is to eliminate 2/3’s of the local population or all but 5,939 nesting pairs. This initiative has provoked a strong negative response amongst many environmental organizations and conservation groups, who argue that there are better alternatives which would benefit both species. They claim that the emphasis should instead be on the hydroelectric dams and habitat restoration. A representative of the USACE, Joyce Casey, states that the agency has “tried other methods to try to address the consumption problem and they don’t seem to be working,” Some of these methods include hazing or attempting to drive the birds away from the site, but these efforts have repeatedly failed as the birds always return to East Sand Island.
Anthropogenic Impacts to Habitat
Anthropogenic impacts have played a pivotal role in the modification of salmon and cormorant habitats in the Columbia River basin. Hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers were primarily responsible for the decline in the local salmon population as salmon were blocked from their spawning sites and often killed by the dam’s turbines. Conversely, the cormorant habitat was actually improved by dredging activities associated with the Columbia River Channel Improvement Project which significantly reinforced East Sand Island, providing the cormorants an excellent breeding ground and habitat to rear their young. According to a study published by the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA) “In the Columbia Basin over one-third of the habitat formerly occupied by salmon is now blocked by dams. Further, dams alter several key characteristics of water, especially temperature, dissolved gases, sediment transport, and the quantity and timing of flow.” Many argue that because the Columbia River dams negatively impacted aquatic wildlife habitat, drastic measures are now necessary to compensate for this species loss.
Blaine Parker a fisheries Biologist for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission who supports the USACE initiative, argues that tax payers who purchase hydroelectric power “have spent hundreds of millions annually to make the ecosystem more fish-friendly,” and they are not inclined to see the fish population rapidly consumed by birds. According to the USACE’s Double-crested Cormorant Management Plan “for some salmonid groups, average double-crested cormorant predation impacts can be similar to or exceed the mortality experienced at a hydropower dam in the Federal Columbia River Power System, and, in some years, can be three to four times higher.”
Federally Protected Species Targeted for Removal
Many groups who oppose the USACE plan made similar arguments in regards to the protection of the Northern Spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina), an endangered species endemic to the Pacific Northwest whose existence was threatened due to logging and invasive species. However, similar to the plight of the salmon, the conservation and protection of their habitat alone wasn’t enough, due to an invasion of barred owls (Strix varia) from the East. As a result, the USFWS approved an experiment to shoot the barred owls in an attempt to help the Northern Spotted owl recover. Shortly thereafter, the USFWS was sued by an advocacy group, Friends of the Animals, on the grounds that the Barred owls are a federally protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
The USACE management plan will not be the first time endangered salmon have received preferential treatment over a predator species. In 2012 the National Marine Fisheries Service approved an initiative to trap and/or kill sea lions that were guilty of consuming salmon near the Bonneville Dam in Oregon. A decision which was also challenged in a court of law, this time in an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by the Humane Society.
The questions remain
How do we decide which species needs more protection? How do we balance the competing objectives of different species? Is eliminating one species to save another the only recourse for federal agencies seeking to bring a species back from the brink of extinction? Stay tuned for a follow up blog on New Zealand and Australia’s answer to adopt a mathematical approach to species conservation.