Environmental Business Column: Protecting New York’s water quality

Water chestnut leaves are seen floating among lily pads in Guffin Creek town of Lyme. Kara Dry/NNY Business

While Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Regional Director Randall Young usually takes the lead on this column, he handed it over to me this month to focus on a common question—what is DEC doing about cormorants?

As the region’s Wildlife Manager and having worked in the Region 6 Watertown office for the past 20 years, I’ve been asked this question more times than I can count. Considering our aquatic resources in this region and world-class fisheries, this issue has a complex history.

Double-crested cormorants are, like nearly all birds, protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The act prohibits the taking of migratory birds unless permitted by the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Up until the spring of 2016, the DEC managed cormorants under the authority of a Public Resource Depredation Order, which allowed state fish and wildlife agencies to lethally remove cormorants to protect managed public resources such as fish, wildlife, and their habitats. For Region 6, these resources included fish stocks in eastern Lake Ontario and Oneida Lake, rare bird species competing for nesting space with cormorants, and the islands used by these birds for nesting. That all changed in May 2016, when the order was vacated and the USFWS was directed to complete an environmental impact statement on the order’s impacts on cormorant populations. At that time, lethal cormorant management activities in New York came to a halt.

Cormorant numbers, observations, and complaints began to rise and the number of cormorant nests on some islands doubled in just a few years. On one island, Gull Island, where the DEC managed cormorants to benefit nesting black-crowned night herons, nest counts fell to zero in 2017, and remained at zero for several years. In addition, vegetation was severely impacted. What was once a lush, green environment turned to a stark, barren landscape. Interestingly, the high-water events on Lake Ontario in 2017 and 2019 negatively impacted cormorants by flooding out nests and nesting habitat. Without these unexpected events, cormorant impacts and numbers likely would have been even higher.

In 2018, the DEC obtained depredation and scientific collector permits from the USFWS, allowing Fish and Wildlife employees to actively manage cormorant populations on a more limited scale. These permits provided some relief while the USFWS finalized its environmental impact statement.

Fast forward to today, thanks to a combination of permits from the USFWS, the DEC is once again effectively managing cormorants. In Region 6, DEC Wildlife staff conduct lethal and/or non-lethal management activities on Oneida Lake, Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence River and Black Lake. Beyond our regional borders, the DEC staff in eastern, central and western New York also undertake cormorant management to protect natural resources in their regions. Statewide, the DEC is working to effectively manage the cormorant populations and minimize impacts to other wildlife, fish and their habitats.

With regard to cormorant management on private property, while lethal removal of cormorants requires a USFWS permit, hazing and harassment that do not harm these birds is allowed without a permit, however, state permits for these activities are required. Contact your regional DEC Wildlife office for further information. For Region 6, please call 315-785-2263. For additional information about these management methods, contact U.S. Department of Agriculture – Wildlife Services personnel at 866-487-3297 for technical advice.

If problems persist, contact the USFWS Migratory Bird Permit Office at 413-253-8643 or permitsR5MB@fws.gov for further information and assistance.

Cormorant management is a complex issue with a complicated history. DEC Division of Fish and Wildlife staff are working hard to manage cormorant populations to benefit our natural resources.

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