Sky wars are being waged on the Niagara River.
On the dark side of Buffalo Niagara’s ecological resurgence is the double-crested cormorant.
The once rare black bird is now ubiquitous here. The cormorant is blamed for overfishing waters in the Niagara River and Lake Erie, taking over the nesting grounds of common terns on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor, spooking herons and egrets and threatening to dismantle millions of dollars worth of habitat restoration efforts.
Flocks of cormorants have been likened to motorcycle gangs. The bird even symbolized Satan in John Milton’s classic, Paradise Lost.
“They’re just bad,” said Denis Kreze, a Fort Erie, Ont., fishing guide. “Bad news everywhere you go.”
The cormorant is also a protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week paved the way to eliminate more than 50,000 cormorants across 37 states, including New York.
Upward of 1,500 adult cormorants and a few thousand nests could be targeted across New York State. Most of the depredation permits would be carried out by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Wildlife officials were reviewing cormorant management strategies this week.
Non-lethal means to shoo the birds like harassment, exclusionary structures, noise-making or scarecrows will be tried first, said James Farquhar, the DEC’s wildlife bureau chief.
If those are impractical or fail, lethal methods including removing eggs from cormorant nests, addling eggs with oil or even shooting them will be considered, the DEC said.
The Niagara River corridor – especially around Strawberry and Motor islands – and the outer breakwall around Buffalo Harbor are two of the state’s several cormorant “hotspots,” Farquhar said. Those are likely to be part of any DEC cormorant management plan, he said.
Others are likely to be near Rochester, the eastern end of Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain and Oneida Lake.
“We’ll need to put together a depredation permit,” Farquhar said.
Large cormorant populations affect diversity in ecosystems in a variety of ways, Farquhar said.
They are voracious fish eaters. That can lower the numbers of fish for other fish and for other aquatic-feeding birds.
Kreze, who’s out almost daily around the mouth of Lake Erie, sees that firsthand.
The cormorants fly up to the mouth of Lake Erie in great numbers and float down with the river’s current. Along the way, they eat, and they eat, and they eat.
“The biggest problem is they’re eating everything, everywhere,” Kreze said. “Within a day, they wipe out what the fish eat.”
That’s drastically reduced the numbers of bait fish and sport fish, like perch, Kreze said.
Then, the cormorants fly to trees along the Niagara Parkway, Strawberry Island or Motor Island in large numbers and poop.
“It used to be one tree or two trees,” Kreze said. “Now, it’s every 20 yards. There are trees full of these damn cormorants.”
Their highly-acidic excrement defoliates trees and other vegetation.
That’s a big problem following the completion of $13 million in habitat improvements the New York Power Authority’s completing in the Niagara River.
Life is returning with bald eagles, egrets, sturgeon, muskellunge, turtles and mink.
The rapid rebound of the cormorant, which was sparse in the 1960s and 1970s because of environmental pollution like DDT, is also part of the recovery.
“As we’ve given them protection and cleaned up the environment, they’ve responded very, very well,” Farquhar said. “They went from really an impaired species to thriving in just a couple of decades.”
Perhaps thriving too much.
The cormorant now challenges about 75 great egret pairs and a great blue heron rookery for control of the DEC’s Motor Island Wildlife Management Area.
The bald eagle is a known predator to the cormorant, but there are a lot more cormorants on the landscape than highly-territorial bald eagles.
Damage wrought by the cormorant on the island was easy to spot last summer. Green-leafed trees were tinged whitish-gray by cormorant excrement. In other spots, they had lost their leaves completely.
But, the trees and other vegetation anchor the island and its newly sculpted shorelines from the river’s erosive wave action and ice floes.
"I strongly prefer a heron rookery on Motor Island rather than a double-crested cormorant colony," said Jay Burney, who chairs the Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve. "I support controlling the double-crested cormorant population because of this."
On the newly crafted Frog Island archipelago, which the project resurrected from beneath the surface of the river, cormorants flock and perch by the dozens.
Similar stories are reported at Strawberry Island, which provides critical habitat for the great blue heron, bald eagle and other species.
What’s more, cormorants are early nesters.
They arrive on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor in places like the breakwall and at Donnelly’s Pier earlier than the common tern.
“Cormorants will just take up most of the space,” Farquhar said. “And, the terns will be displaced.”
Since May 2016, managing cormorant populations has been on hold in New York and across the country.
A U.S. District Court upheld a lawsuit filed by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) organization on behalf of federal Fish and Wildlife employees.
The employees sued the agency they work for, disputing an agency policy that allowed the killing of cormorants under certain circumstances, like protecting the catfish industry and sport fishing industry, without a special permit. They successfully argued the policy violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
The federal court required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review its environmental responsibilities.
On Wednesday, the agency returned to a pre-2003 policy that would require individual depredation permits to kill cormorants and agreed to oversee decisions on permit application for the lethal taking of up to 51,571 double-crested cormorants. And, its environmental assessment determined there would be no significant environmental harm done by doing so.
It caps the taking to 11,634 cormorants in the Atlantic Flyway, which is where Buffalo and the Niagara River is located.
Buffalo was referenced prominently twice in the agency's assessment:
- It cited Strawberry Island as a place where cormorant control proved successful in spurring nesting of great blue herons, great egrets and black-crowned night-herons there.
- Telemetry studies of 119 cormorants tagged with a GPS transmitter showed several of the birds migrated through Buffalo from the south through the north breakwater at Buffalo Harbor.
Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, said his organization is continuing to review the Fish and Wildlife Service’s findings.
“What they’re proposing is different than what we had got recinded,” Ruch said.
It expands the geographical area from 24 to 37 states, but does satisfy some of the complaints alleged by the lawsuit, including mandating individual permits.
“These are the least politically popular animals I’ve ever encountered,” Ruch said. “All we’re saying is learn about them before you shoot them.”
Ruch added: “Our involvement in the issue was motivated by what we see as an increasingly militarized approach to wildlife management with what is a ‘shoot first, ask questions later.’”
Farquhar said data doesn’t suggest the cormorant population in the Buffalo Niagara region has exploded in the last 18 months.
“Our overall counts are stable so far,” Farquhar said.
But, those populations when unmolested by strategic management activities settle and quickly colonize spots they find to be most comfortable.
Those tend to be away from human activity like on the isolated islands of the Niagara River.
This year’s count of cormorants attempting to nest here – about 600 – was six times higher than when management efforts were in full effect.
What if the cormorant populations continued to be left unmanaged?
“We could start to lose those water birds that are less numerous,” Farquhar said.