5 Miles upstream from the mouth of the Columbia River sits East Sand Island, a low-lying, highly modified stretch of land that covers 50 acres. For most of the year it’s quiet, but come spring, the island becomes a breeding ground to 60,000 shorebirds, half of which are double-crested cormorants, the largest colony in North America. Apparently, these birds are eating more than their fair share of salmon and steelhead trout, and starting next spring the U.S. government plans to kill 16,000 cormorants in an effort to save the fish, which are not only commercially viable but also both endangered species.
Is Killing One Species to Save Another Okay?
“Lethal Control,” which is killing one species of animal to save another, is a growing trend in wildlife management. Though many wildlife managers find the practice uncomfortable, lethal control is fast becoming a go-to strategy to maintain balance and order in the natural world.
But what, or who, has thrown the natural world out of whack? It would seem human beings are once again the root cause of the problem. We are expanding our impact on nature. Climate changes have caused new migratory patterns and species interactions within the animal kingdom that never happened in the past, and according to Michael Scott, an ecologist at the University of Idaho, in Moscow, “With society having a bigger and bigger footprint, [the practice of lethal control] can only increase.”
Who Gives a Dam?
There wasn’t always trouble between cormorants and fish along East Sand Island. In fact, the two coexisted just fine until the hydropower dams, which interfered with fish migration and destroyed natural habitats, were built on the Columbia River. Although the cormorant colony on the island has grown exponentially in recent years, the overall population in the western United States is small in comparison to other parts of the country, thanks to predation by eagles, habitat loss and human infringement.
Will the Killing Help?
While the proposed culling will definitely reduce the population of cormorants, it won’t necessarily help the steelhead trout and salmon, which are also being wiped out by California sea lions that swim 145 miles up the Columbia to feast on them. In previous years, wildlife managers tried to scare the sea lions away, but ended up lethally controlling 70 of the animals instead.
Is lethal control really the answer to these species interaction problems we’ve created? And at what point will we cause an entirely new set of problems by killing some to save others?