It's after 10 p.m. and I'm on a boat at the mouth of the Columbia River.
We're circling around East Sand Island, where thousands of seabirds are nesting in total darkness. I'm pretty sure the captain, Rob Gudgell, thinks I'm nuts.
"Why did you want to come out at night?" he asks.
I tell him we got a tip that government agents would be out on the island shooting cormorants that night. They're working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – using rifles with silencers under the cover of night – on a plan that involves killing around 11,000 cormorants over the next four years.
It's a big enough deal that we decided to hire a boat and see if we could document the operation. The captain is not convinced.
"If they were going to be doing something I'd think they'd be doing it in the daytime," he says. "They can't do anything at night. It's too dark. There's no lights. You're not going to be able to see anything."
He was right that we couldn't see anything. But documents obtained through a public records request show government agents were out on the island that night – about an hour after we left. They shot 16 cormorants.
Why all the secrecy?
I asked project manager Bob Winters why the Corps won’t tell the public when the shooting is taking place. Why keep it a secret?
"I don't think we're being secret," he says before adding: "If I told you when the birds were going to be culled, wouldn't that invite protesters? It would, wouldn't it?"
Winters says the shooters are operating at night not to hide from people but from the birds themselves – to avoid scaring off the thousands of double-crested cormorants nesting on the island. If the birds fly upriver, he says, they'll end up eating even more salmon than they do at the mouth of the river where there's more ocean fish in the mix.
The cormorants are eating an average of 11 million juvenile salmon a year, but in some years they've eaten up to 18 percent of all the young Columbia River salmon and steelhead making their way downriver to the ocean.
"We're not trying to eliminate the double-crested cormorants from East Sand Island," he says. "We're just trying to reduce their impact on salmon to a sustainable level."
Over the years, the Corps has stabilized the island and used it to store dredge material. That plus millions of young salmon swimming by during nesting season has helped make East Sand Island home to the largest cormorant colony in North America. It's grown from around 100 nesting pairs in 1989 to 15,000 pairs in recent years.
Opponents Take Flight To Check On The Colony
Bird advocates worry the government's plan could decimate a colony that represents a huge percentage of the double-crested cormorants on the West Coast.
"We're not happy, obviously," says Sharnelle Fee, who has run the Wildlife Center of the North Coast rehabilitation facility near Astoria for nearly 20 years. "We came here to help these birds. The colony has suffered total disruption."
The public isn't allowed on the island so Fee has been renting a plane and paying a biologist to fly over the island with a camera to track how the government operation is affecting the birds.
"It is a total shutdown of any information whatsoever," she says. "So we had to resort to extraordinary means to try to determine at least in part what impact is occurring to this colony."
She's noticed there are far fewer nesting birds on the island than in previous years and the birds have abandoned some sections of the colony.
158 birds and counting
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers posts weekly updates on how many adult cormorants have been killed. So far, it's 158. That's far short of the 3,500 birds the agency had planned to kill this year, but the nesting season isn't over yet.
Joyce Casey, branch chief for environmental resources with Corps' Portland district, says officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, who are carrying out the operation, are being careful not to orphan baby birds by killing adult birds that are tending to chicks.
"We're not done yet for the year," she says. "Once the chicks are fledged off the nest and able to take care of themselves, we'll go out again and see whether we might resume some of the shooting activities."
Casey says the Corps did extensive research and carefully considered non-lethal options before deciding to kill cormorants, though one of the agency's key cormorant researchers, Dan Roby, disputed that claim in a public comment letter.
Ultimately, Casey says, the Corps is following direction from the National Marine Fisheries Service to shrink the size of the cormorant colony on East Sand Island to about 5,600 nesting pairs – less than half the current population – as one of dozens of actions needed to offset the negative impacts of hydroelectric dams.
"It certainly wasn't something we undertook lightly," she says. "What our analysis showed was the only way for us to get the population from its current level down to about 5,600 nesting pairs within the four years we had to take action was to do lethal removal activities."
The Corps is doing extensive monitoring to keep track of what effects the culling operation is having so they can adjust their plans as needed, Casey says. They're also oiling cormorant eggs to prevent new chicks from hatching; that will cut down on the number of adult birds on the island over time.
"If the cormorants didn't get them, something else would"
Several groups opposed to the the Corps' cormorant management plan have teamed up and gone to court to stop the agency from killing the birds. They say the Corps is blaming the birds for problems caused by dams and that killing birds isn't going to save salmon.
They recently received a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services study through a court order that concludes killing cormorants won't actually improve salmon runs in the Columbia River. The study found the fish the birds are eating would die in the ocean – even if they weren't eaten by cormorants.
"If the cormorant didn’t get them, something else would," says Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. "The bottom line is killing cormorants isn't going to do anything to help the fish."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declined to comment on the study citing pending litigation. But Casey says her agency is expecting to deliver a 3.7 percent benefit to salmon runs by shrinking the cormorant colony.
She says it's "unknown" whether the salmon that are spared from being eaten cormorants will ultimately survive and return to the river to spawn, but there's no reason to think that factor in salmon survival has changed over time as the cormorant colony has grown.
"We know salmon are being consumed by cormorants on East Sand Island," she says. "We know that, and we know that by reducing the population of cormorants, we will reduce the consumption of those salmon."
"People say, 'Just fix the dams'"
Casey says her agency has spent millions improving its dams and it's nearly reached its goal for fish passage.
"People say, 'Just fix the dams,'" she says. "We have done a tremendous amount of work, made a tremendous dollar value of capital investment in Corps dams in the last 20 years or so. ... So, there really isn't a whole lot more work for us to do at the dams."
While the Corps is facing a lot of opposition to its plan to kill cormorants, the agency also has support from Native American tribes and sport fishers who catch salmon.
Bob Rees, a longtime fishing guide and executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, says a lot is riding on the government's efforts to save salmon, including many valuable fisheries.
The dams on the river are the primary culprit in the decline of salmon, he says. But cormorants are part of the problem, too.
"It is sad we're at the point where we have to remove one species to protect another," he says. "The fact of the matter is that this population of cormorants is absolutely thriving on lower sand island. Our salmon and steelhead populations are still listed on the Endangered Species List. There has to be a delicate balance that happens between two species so that everybody can benefit."