ESCANABA - There was to be an expansion of the cormorant control program to take place this spring and summer along the northern shore of Lake Michigan. Once completed, it will take previous measures a step further by implementing volunteers and expand use of lethal control to reduce the overall area population of cormorants.
The program has seen great success in other regions of the Great Lakes and has resulted in a return of specific fisheries that had been nearly devastated due to cormorant predation. The birds haven't been wiped out. They have been controlled to manageable levels.
Cormorants come here from warmer climates each spring, following the Mississippi Valley flyway. The last numbers regarding local area cormorant populations project 8,077 active nests which equates to 40,385 birds total for the end of 2009. Their usual stay in the waters of the Bays deNoc is about 150 days each year. Given their resident population total, and the fact each bird on average consumes 1.5 pounds of fish per day, this equates to 60,578 pounds per day and nearly 9.1 million pounds per season taken from the local fishery.
According to Dave Westerberg, Secretary of the Bay deNoc Great Lakes Sport Fishermen and Cormorant Control Program coordinator for the north shore project, "We have the largest single population of cormorants in the nation!"
In previous years, members of the USDA/Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) had been effectively oiling eggs in active nests each season, rendering them inert and helping slow the spiraling growth rate of new birds. They also used lethal measures to remove segments of the cormorant population, but their range and availability is limited and bird populations continue to grow.
As a participating member of the Cormorant Control Program, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (MDNRE) and USFWS had been working to increase the allocation of birds taken from 10,500 to 20,000. Left unchecked, conservation organizations feel the growing cormorant population and the damage it is doing prey stock could very well spell the end of the total Bays deNoc fishery.
To justify the need, an environmental assessment document was supposed to be sent to all the area conservation clubs for written comment in January or February 2010, with a 30 day deadline to respond. The results of the study are being compiled by the USFWS in Wisconsin and have not yet been completed. As a result, the program earmarked for this season cannot move forward.
In 2007, the Michigan Legislature passed Senate Bill 354 and House Bills 4471 & 4614. Combined as Public Acts 47, 48 & 49 of 2007, they advocate the State to seek funding from the Great Lakes Protection Fund for deposit in the Cormorant Control Fund which was also created through the new law within the state treasury.
Money in the fund at the close of the fiscal year will remain in the fund and will not lapse to the general fund.
In fiscal year 2006-07, $150,000 from the State's General Fund was earmarked for the MDNRE to conduct cormorant control activities. Expenditure of this money was contingent upon matching federal funds. The federal funds were received and the general fund appropriation was spent.
Now fast forward to the project for this year. A request for $75,000 for the 2010 Cormorant Control Program, including the expanded operation proposed for the northern Lake Michigan shore, was vetoed by Governor Granholm from the FY 2010 budget.
I made contact with members of the state's leadership from both the administration and the MDNRE, seeking an explanation as to why the veto occurred. I was told the USFWS "has a budget that provides sufficient funding for the cormorant control activities in the western and central north shore of Lake Michigan. The line item veto has no relationship to the delay in the program. The delay may be due to the timing of USFWS in receiving their budget at the Federal level."
If the USFWS has not yet completed the necessary environmental assessment report to justify the allocation of funds to be used in the USFWS budget for the cormorant control program, the State of Michigan may not want to over extend itself in funding the entire amount, especially given the limited General Fund available. The law indicates there must be an equal match of Federal dollars allocated for use.
This happened once before and we almost saw an equivalent reduction in allocated federal monies being deemed as unnecessary.
It is frustrating to these knowledgeable conservation organizations to see a problem so simple to understand and resolve, only to be tied up in bureaucratic red tape and all at the expense of those same citizens our government is expected to serve.
Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.