A Tale of common misery: How Michigan isn't dealing with its cormorant problem

As a retired school administrator, Larry Meier has seen the odd act of vandalism and destruction. But nothing he's seen compares to the outright environmental devastation currently going on around Michigan's once lovely Les Cheneaux Islands. The chain of islands, which comprise nearly 12 miles of land, have been denuded of vegetation and turned into guano depositories. And Meier, who says he's now an activist angler, is monumentally angry about it.

“All this was completely unnecessary and avoidable. I've enjoyed going fishing with my family all my life,” he says. “We've fished the Cedarville area — around the islands — since 1941. Now, we've given it up. You can go out all day and catch nothing. It's pointless.”

The common problem

Michigan and the Delta share a common problem: an over-abundance of cormorants.

But if the Delta's cormorant problem is bad, Michigan's problem is horrific. Learn from Michigan's mistakes, says Meier, or you'll soon end up in the same predicament.

“Hey, if we don't band together and get something done about this, we're all going to be in major trouble. There's no Chicken Little here. The sky really will fall. Actually, it's falling.”

In the early 1970s there were only around 70 pairs of cormorants in Michigan. Now, the birds are “everywhere,” says Meier. Indeed, on the scant land available in the aforementioned islands, some 11,000 cormorants have been counted. And those 11,000 were counted on just two of the islands.

Cormorants have destroyed the fishing industry in the area — an area that used to be known as the fishing capital of the state. Resorts are closing and fishing guides have moved on. Meier says there's one bait shop left.

“It's a terrible, terrible shame. What's being gained by allowing these birds to multiply unchecked? This whole area was once full of resorts. At this time of year, it used to be that you couldn't even get a cabin — multitudes of people would be out perch fishing. Now, it's like a ghost town.”

There are several things that are happening beyond losing fish. The islands, once full of trees now look as though a war was fought atop them — “there's not a leaf left.” In areas that cormorants have made rookeries, nesting areas for other birds have been wrecked. All other birds were forced out.

And once an area is stripped of plant life and fish, the cormorants are forced to move.

“They keep taking over more and more areas. They move with remarkable speed. On St. Mary's River (which connects Lake Huron to Lake Superior) they had no cormorants several years ago. There's a flock of 6,000 there now and they're eating their way through that area.”

The progression

As in the Delta, the Michigan cormorant saga is the same, old story: turf wars between the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) and USDA's Wildlife Services (WS); fundamental disagreements between FWS' hyper-vigilant environmentalism and WS' desire to kill thousands of the birds; the depredation permit issuing FWS and the permit seeking WS.

Michigan's cormorant problem first surfaced in the 1980s, says Meier.

“We've known these birds were doing this since then and still nothing is being done. It's stunning that FWS don't see this as a problem. Wildlife Services biologists have gone to these islands and says it's a major problem, but, incredibly, FWS doesn't agree.”

The Michigan Dept of Natural Resources (DNR) would also be willing to deal with the birds. But FWS “won't give one penny to such an effort and want to keep total control. Look up the new rules. An FWS regional leader can pull any depredation order (or killing permit) at any time. If you were a state and had geared up to get these birds under control, one FWS employee can jerk the rug from beneath you.”

Meier says he is “sick of FWS' games.”

In the lead-up to releasing new cormorant management rules, FWS held a series of cormorant meetings across the country (editor's note: for more on the new rules see “Illusion of cormorant management” in the May 23 issue of Delta Farm Press). One such meeting was held in Mackinaw City, Mich., last year.

“There were over 200 people at a meeting held on a night with major ice, snow and sleet,” says Meier. “Out of the 50 or 60 people who spoke, not one was later quoted in FWS summaries of the meetings. The retired Michigan DNR fisheries wildlife biologist even spoke on the devastation caused by the over-abundance of cormorants and he wasn't quoted. Yet, in their reports the FWS uses quotes repeatedly from states like Iowa where problems with cormorants are much more minor. We're very frustrated at these games.”

Piranha birds

Around Meier, there are three huge bays where fish come in to spawn. As the ice goes out, the cormorants arrive for summer. The timing is perfect for the birds: the spawning fish are served up on a platter. But, unfortunately, the cormorants don't only eat the spawning fish; they also break up fish egg masses. Thus the fish population is further eroded.

“And no one at FWS is saying boo. Isn't that amazing? I've seen cormorants fly into lakes in groups of 3,000. They're very smart. I call them ‘piranha birds’ because when they get into a feeding frenzy, the water boils and turns red as they eat fish.

“What they do is a big flock lands on a lake and the birds at the back dive under the group. Then they drive the fish from the bottom to their teammates who're waiting on top. It's an absolute team effort and they gorge themselves. Happens every single day.”

Fishermen — commercial or otherwise — are becoming increasingly desperate. Vigilantes in New York recently shot 2,500 cormorants because they were destroying the fisheries. In Minnesota someone shot around 400 cormorants in walleye spawning areas. Vigilantism is being forced on people, says Meier.

“There's a concerned citizen group that is being formed here. The group is largely composed of the people who were hopeful something positive would happen at that farce of a meeting in Mackinaw City. There are rumblings about legal action. But when the resorts are all gone and bankrupt, who's going to pay for it?”

Come visit

If people opposed to reducing the cormorant population would only travel to the Les Cheneaux Islands they'd understand, says Meier.

“But they don't and won't. They'd rather cling to their holistic beliefs — which aren't entirely illegitimate: who wants to kill anything? — and ignore the facts on the ground. All the federal regulations only talk about doing something to the young birds — like oiling eggs. There's nothing said about taking out adult cormorants. That's ridiculous. These birds can live more than 10 years.”

Typically, cormorants have three or four young every nesting season.

“So, for every single bird you send us from the South, we're sending you three back. The population explosion is amazing.”

A bad idea

FWS allows you to harass the birds in certain circumstances. Recently, Meier says a Michigan fisherman saw a flock of 6,000 cormorants and decided to chase them out of his fishing hole. Bad idea.

“It took him four days to clean his boat out — the birds were taking off and just (defecating) fish. You can't imagine the mess he had.

“You know, I speak with people experiencing problems with cormorants in (the Delta). We're all in agreement. We're not trying to eliminate this bird. We're just trying to keep it from wrecking anything else. I really hope (the Delta) takes care of their cormorant business before it gets any worse. And if you don't take care of it, it will get worse. Just look at us and learn.”

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