Agencies differ on cormorant control

If words are weapons then Thurman Booth will stride confidently into a fracas and kick backsides. Regarding his expertise, there is no governor on his motor, no political-correctness filter for his words. He isn't afraid of offending you or your constituency. He isn't worried about your demographic or the issues you hold dear. He isn't concerned about calling you out or roasting your sacred cow. He is, quite simply, an honest man with a voice.

No semantics

Thurman Booth is the Arkansas state director of USDA's Wildlife Services (WS), and he wants someone to kill more cormorants. Lots more. Yeah, forget words like “harvest” or “take” or “remove.” Booth uses the word “kill” because that's what needs doing and mealy-mouthing the situation just isn't going to help. Call a spade a spade, a kill a kill.

“Flat-out, we need to kill a whole bunch of these birds. Cormorants are in the Delta in huge wintering populations through April. We now have a nesting population of these once-migrating birds in Millwood Lake.

“By May, the colony of cormorants at Millwood Lake will begin nesting and raising young. By the time those young fledge in September, we'll see the migrating cormorants arrive from the north. The migrating cormorants are arriving earlier and staying later. Plus, we have a population that never leaves.

“We have cormorants in Arkansas year-round eating fish on farms (costing Arkansas fish farmers between $2 million and $3 million annually) and in our sport-fishing waters. This is a function of the fact that the national cormorant population has literally exploded. Once DDT was banned and eggshell thinning stopped being a problem, cormorants' reproductive rate skyrocketed.”

Booth would have already killed heaps of cormorants by now but another federal agency — the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) — has stayed his scythe.

“Yeah, we should have — and if WS had the authority, we would have — instituted national cormorant population reduction efforts 10 years ago. However, FWS has a monopoly on that authority and it didn't happen.”

Over the years, a no-kill philosophy has slowly infected the FWS, says Booth. That's the reason the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) FWS is currently shopping around has seen almost unanimous opposition (excepting radical environmental groups), he says. That is a bad sign because the FWS have been working on the EIS for over a year.

“All the guidance WS gave them — and we're the most experienced cormorant agency in this country — they ignored, mainly because they won't concede that significant reductions in cormorant populations are needed.”

The way FWS wrote its plan implies it is moving toward killing more birds. Don't be fooled, says Booth. The problem is, you can't kill enough birds just by shooting them at roost or on wintering grounds, and that's what FWS has called for.

“Plus, they've built in safeguards to insure that their viewpoints are upheld. For example, if we're going to control birds at winter roost, we all know from experience that if we go out and start shooting birds as they come in, 95 percent will leave. That's insignificant in terms of control.

“If we go in at night and stir them up, and then shoot them when they land in the water, we'll have better success. But that's still not effective enough, despite what the FWS would have everyone believe.”

Ask the many frustrated Delta fish farmers: picking cormorants off one at a time just doesn't work. Of all the things that have been tried — “and let's be honest, there are probably more birds killed illegally than under permits” — the population continues to boom exponentially, says Booth.

As distasteful as it sounds, what must happen is someone must travel to cormorant nesting areas and destroy eggs, nests and adults. That, insists Booth, is the only thing that will solve the problem.

“In the last five years, we've seen such a population boom that cormorants are now covering sport-fish lakes everywhere. It's unthinkable that an agency with the responsibility to manage this bird — as FWS has had — would have let it come to this. The FWS has been a travesty and is unethical. They've shirked their responsibility, and I'm sure that's one of the reasons that Southern politicians have essentially said, ‘If you're not going to do your job, we'll let someone else do it.’”

Some background

A bit of background is in order here. First, until 1986 when Congress shifted the agency under the USDA umbrella, Wildlife Services was a part of FWS. When the transition occurred, Booth had been working for the agency for 20 years. During those years, he saw a philosophical shift — subtle at first — at FWS.

“Many individuals within the FWS aren't hunters and philosophically disagree with the concept of killing anything.”

The mission statement of the FWS uses the phrase “conserve, protect and enhance wildlife and habitat.” Booth says the non-kill mentality that has “surreptitiously encroached” throughout the FWS uses that concept to mean, “‘don't kill anything. If a little is good, a lot is better. Our job is simply to build numbers.’

“That's a fine idea if you're talking about an endangered species or a population that's in trouble. But when you get to overabundant species, thos e that toe the no-kill line can't make the adjustments needed to understand that good management can mean the need to reduce populations. They can't do it. It's against their internal drive.”

Booth says that the FWS — in an effort to build political force — has catered to and aligned itself with environmental groups opposed to killing anything, ever. That's the ultimate reason the situation with cormorants has come about, he says.

“Wildlife management is most accurately employed by state game and fish agencies. They're the ones on the ground daily having to deal with overpopulated deer, cormorants, whatever. They understand that there is a harvestable surplus produced by healthy wildlife.”

Conversely, FWS has become a more esoteric organization where people stay inside, read old literature and philosophize, says Booth.

“The FWS people making the ultimate decisions aren't field biologists, they're people in regional and Washington, D.C., offices. The FWS decision-makers have little direct contact with wildlife.”

In 1986, when Booth's division was transferred from FWS to USDA, the shift was more than physical, he says.

“When we got to USDA, we found those in management atop us were oriented toward food and fiber production. They understand that in order to have a steak for supper, something has to be killed. FWS is currently kowtowing to people ignorant to that fact.”

Congress weighs in

Here's the problem: while WS is charged with assisting farmers and others with wildlife destruction and depredation, the FWS holds a regulatory hammer. Two bills before Congress currently (S909 and HR2879) are aimed at changing that. The legislation would provide the authority to USDA's Wildlife Services to manage cormorants.

“We at WS are receptive to that. We have done most of the research and the cormorant management that's been allowed. We've been on the job the whole time there's been too many cormorants — probably going on 20 years now. During that time, we've done more alone than everyone else combined in regards to the birds.”

Something that's been misunderstood is that passage of these bills wouldn't take authority away from FWS, says Booth. It would simply grant WS duplicate authority.

“We've had the full responsibility to deal with cormorants, but not the authority. Congress would be very wise to give us the authority we need to take care of this before it gets too late.”

In other words, today a FWS biologist could, if he so chose, go out and kill a cormorant or issue a depredation permit on behalf of his agency. A WS biologist, meanwhile, can't do anything without authority being granted by FWS. Still, the WS employee is the fellow farmers call.

“It makes no sense to me for a WS biologist to go out, set up non-lethal scaring programs, fill out the applications and do everything else except sign the permit. This is totally inefficient. Our biologists went to the same schools as FWS' biologists; they have the same training, the same smarts.”

Booth says the groups who don't want anything killed — the Audubon Society, the Defenders of Wildlife, PETA, Animal Liberation Front and others — have perpetuated a lie. That lie is that the passage of “killing permit” authority to WS would circumvent the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“First, the MBTA (which cormorants fall under) is a treaty between the U.S. and foreign governments. Congress put that act into place and authority was delegated to FWS. It would be under the same act that WS would be granted the same authority to manage migratory birds that cause problems. Our authority wouldn't be apart from the MBTA, but would actually be a part of it. We wouldn't be circumventing the MBTA as is being suggested by environmental groups.”

Second, the NEPA has a provision for what's called a “categorical exclusion,” says Booth. There have been waivers of the NEPA by Congress in the past. So, again, passage of the bills is perfectly legal and precedent has already been set.

That said, the two bills under consideration (both introduced by either Arkansas or Mississippi politicians) would simply make the government more efficient, says Booth.

And WS would take care of cormorant business immediately instead of six, eight or 10 weeks down the line. Why is that important?

“We just found out that renewal of FWS depredation permits will take four months to get. So the fish farmers who had permits last year — and were told all they had to do to get renewals was request them — will have to wait at least until late spring or early summer to deal with any cormorant problems. That's inexcusable and inefficient.”

EIS and whipping boy

As mentioned earlier the FWS has been hearing public comment on an environmental impact statement that proposes options for dealing with cormorants. Greeted with almost unanimous derision by farmers and sportsmen, none of the proposed FWS options are a radical departure from the tactics used while the birds' numbers have shot up.

In fact, the option most think the FWS will employ (which involves issuing a public resource depredation order allowing federal, tribal and state management agencies to put into place their own cormorant management programs while FWS maintains oversight) receives the highest criticism.

“First of all, I don't think FWS' goals are honorable, so I don't think they're doing anything sound. There's no doubt of that. Having known the people who are suggesting this, having understood their philosophy and having been an employee of that agency for over 20 years, I know this is the case.

“What they're trying to do with this plan is continue to cater to PETA and the Humane Society and the rest. They want to say ‘we wouldn't kill any cormorants. But we have no choice but to delegate our authority to state agencies and land management agencies. They made the decision to kill all these cormorants. Those state and land management agencies are the bad guys. We, the FWS, remain the good guys. We haven't killed anything.’ This is nothing more than passing the buck or the hot potato.”

However, by maintaining oversight, the FWS will remain capable of stopping any cormorant control that is proven effective, says Booth. He claims to have seen it repeatedly.

“Essentially, WS has been FWS' whipping boy for the last few years. They're now trying to spread the grief amongst state wildlife and land management agencies.”

Do these state agencies know what they're in for? “I think most know what's up. I know the Arkansas wildlife agency knows it's getting no money and only trouble in having to deal with cormorants. There may be some land-managing agencies that will be victimized by this. But after one go-around, they'll figure it out really quick.”

There's another historical lesson Booth believes we should revisit, and it involves vigilantism. Before DDT-type chemicals devastated cormorant populations, there was a similar situation with overpopulated cormorants on the Great Lakes.

“When the population got high — not as high as it is now, though — during the first part of last century, commercial fishermen decided cormorants were a serious competitor. With nets and illegal killing, those fishermen almost exterminated the cormorants through illegal activity.

“Almost invariably, nowadays when people try to solve these types of problems themselves, they think of chemicals. Unfortunately, the same chemicals that will kill cormorants will kill everything else. That possibility — a vigilante with chemicals — is a very real possibility if the government fails in the current situation.”

Booth isn't a lone wolf on this. Last July he met with his counterparts from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. At that meeting a position statement for the agency was drawn up.

“It was subsequently adopted by our boss in Washington, D.C. The statement advocates cormorant population reductions at the local, regional and national levels using all efficient techniques at all locations. We must address this. We know that local controls — lethal or non-lethal — used in the past are inadequate.”

Do his superiors accept Booth's candor?

“Look, my supervisor feels the same as I do. I'm not concerned with being politically correct on this at all. I'm interested in speaking truth. All the way to the top, our administrators are in agreement on this.”

Wildlife Services is unusual as a federal agency, says Booth. While under all the restrictions and restraints all other federal agencies are under, “we've found through working with people that if we tell them the truth they'll support us. That's why our agency has such strong political support.

“Farmers know we're with them on this and they let their representatives in Congress know it. There aren't that many federal entities that have a constituency that will stand up for them like that.”

And Booth also has another advantage.

“I was eligible to retire a few years ago. There isn't anything anyone can say or do to me for telling the truth. As long as I tell the truth, the absolute worst thing that can happen to me is I just get aggravated and retire. But in case you're wondering, that isn't likely to happen.”

e-mail: [email protected]

Cormorants and Millwood Lake

Thurman Booth says the best example of FWS meddling is Millwood Lake (located near Texarkana, Ark.) and the nesting colony of cormorants. In 1999, WS found over 100 nests. The WS realized the potential of that nesting colony to explode into a year-round problem with cormorants nesting all over the state. In both 1999 and 2000, WS thinned the flock. That ended when FWS “notified us that the authority we'd held for years was essentially revoked. After two years of us keeping the population down, the FWS interpreted their own authority to be illegal. They saw our efforts were working and didn't want the word to get out.”

This past year at Millwood there were 48 active nests with two or three young each. Booth anticipates that the nests will be over 100 this spring, and unless something changes in a couple of years there will be nesting cormorants all across Arkansas.

Millwood Lake used to have great fishing. No more. There are several reasons why fishing quality declines in a lake as it ages, says Booth. “But stop and think about 10,000 cormorants that eat 1 pound of fish daily for 180 days. Even if the birds eat nothing but shad, you start getting into tons of fish that predator and sports fish rely on for food.”

Plus, once the word gets out — as it has around Millwood — that fishing has dropped off markedly, there's an economic domino effect. The people that make a living in and around the lake are left in the cold because no one is buying bait, a Coke or gas. No one is filling up motel rooms or driving in to fish and leaving cash at the local steakhouse.

“The bait shops and sports fishing industry around Millwood have been devastated. It looks like a ghost town around there. Imagine if that happened across the state. The word hasn't gotten out to the people in our state… We're staring a frightening scenario right in the face.”

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