Conservation groups pleaded with S.C. Department of Natural Resources officials Tuesday to end the cormorant control operation that killed more than 12,000 of the migratory birds in one month on the Santee Cooper lakes.
Meanwhile, Santee Cooper area tourism leaders praised the agency for trying to balance the importance of the fish-eating birds with the value of the lake’s fish population on the local economy.
DNR officials were stunned that 1,225 people came to the training sessions and volunteered to shoot cormorants on lakes Marion and Moultrie during the one-month program that ended March 1. The final number of cormorants reported killed was 12,113, according to the final report released at a meeting Tuesday of the agency’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Advisory Committee. More focused hunts – usually using only wildlife officers and/or Native American Indian hunters – in seven other states in 2013 killed only 21,312 of the birds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“This got out of hand,” said Jay Coles, executive director of Carolina Wildlife Care. “We called out the DNR militia, and we took out the terrorists. ... Turning it loose to South Carolina hunters is not the way to handle this problem.”
Despite the large numbers killed, most people who spend time on the lakes say there are as many cormorants on the water this spring as ever. Because they are migratory birds, cormorants from other areas quickly have moved into the abundant feeding grounds on the lakes.
Also speaking out against the program were Ben Gregg, executive director of the S.C. Wildlife Federation, and Norman Brunswig, executive director of the Audubon Society of S.C.
Brunswig read from a 1950s report that noted the abundance of cormorants on the Santee Cooper lakes. Like many predator bird species, the number of cormorants dropped remarkably in the 1960s because of pesticide use that impacted egg health.
“When eagles and osprey came back, we celebrated,” Brunswig said. “We were thrilled to have them back. But not cormorants.”
Gregg and Brunswig complained that the agency made decisions on managing a species without scientific study, in part in response to a proviso placed in the 2013-14 state budget by Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence. (A similar proviso that encourages expanding the program to other waterways was included in the 2014-15 House budget proposal, but a Senate finance subcommittee recommended it be deleted.)
“Let the scientists do their work, and let them make the decisions,” Gregg said. “Don’t do it based on anecdotal talk and on a couple of constituent comments.”
Santee Cooper Country tourism officials argue that the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. There are more cormorants — tens of thousands — on the lakes than two decades ago, and they are eating lots of fish, including
bass and catfish, which are big draws for lake tourism. And while most experts agree cormorants seldom dine on those large fish, they gorge on the smaller fish that are an important part of the diet for bass and catfish.
“I just want to let you know there are folks who are very supportive of the cormorant control project,” said Buddy Jennings, speaking for Santee Cooper Country. He said the effort is about balancing the cormorant population with the fish population.
Emily Cope, deputy director of the DNR Wildlife and Fisheries Division, said no decision has been made on how to proceed with the program next year. However, she suspects there will be changes. She will recommend that the 705 permit holders who didn’t return required reports be denied permits in the future. That should cut down on the number of participants.
DNR officials said the makeup of the program in 2015 will be determined after summer meetings involving migratory bird program directors in states throughout the cormorant flyway. Only a few hundred of the birds live in South Carolina year-round, so controlling the species properly requires a multi-state effort.