It started as a local dispute about birds eating too many fish at a popular lake in the west metro.
Now, it has blossomed into a controversy that involves two Minnesota congressmen trying to change a federal law that protects migrating birds, giving Minnesota and other states greater leeway to kill double-breasted cormorants.
Ground zero is Lake Waconia in Carver County, where the cormorants, great blue herons, great egrets and black-crowned night herons have been nesting each summer in increasing numbers in the large trees on Coney Island, a privately owned, 32-acre island just north of downtown Waconia.
Many anglers on the lake, including Mayor Jim Nash, blame the cormorants for a downturn in the number of walleye. Nash, who has fished the 3,000-acre lake for the past decade, said that cormorants are ruining the walleye fishery because they're eating too many crappies and other small fish that walleyes need to eat.
The only solution, said Nash, is to kill more of the cormorants to save the fishery, preserve the vegetation on Coney Island and ensure that tourism dollars keep flowing into the area.
"The numbers of cormorants are growing everywhere, and the red tape is so profound that we can't get things done quickly enough," he said.
But several scientists say that the cormorants are being blamed unfairly and that current laws are flexible enough to deal with specialized local concerns.
"I'm just baffled at where the problem is," said Don Pereira, Fisheries Research and Policy Manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"The system works and there's not much red tape at all."
Not very cute
Cormorants are large, mostly black birds with streamlined bodies that make them excellent divers, allowing them to snag and consume about a pound of fish per day. They're not particularly attractive, and some people have compared them to vultures. At this time of year, most of the Midwestern flocks are wintering along the Gulf of Mexico.
Cormorant numbers declined because of pesticide exposure and shooting, prompting a 1972 amendment to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that says their nests and eggs cannot be disturbed and that a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is needed before they can be shot or captured.
About 3,000 people in the Waconia area have signed a petition asking that any private landowner in the state be allowed to seek permits to kill cormorants on their property because the birds have been growing at "an alarming rate." The petition says that would be a "cost effective and preventative measure to help stop this phenomenon from spreading and worsening statewide."
U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who visited the In Towne Marina in Waconia recently, said that people are "frustrated by the merry-go-round of red tape that hinders the ability of states and communities to control these pests," and he offered a solution. He and co-sponsor Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., have introduced a bill that would take the authority to manage cormorants from federal agencies and give it to state governments.
A healthy fishery
Linda Wires, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota, said cormorants are federally protected because they are a national resource and a migrating species.
Allowing individual states to manage them could result in whole populations being wiped out in some places, said Wires, who works in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology. "It's much better to keep this at a federal level so you can look at the total population," she said.
Wires and other researchers estimated that there were 15,425 pairs of cormorants nesting at about 36 Minnesota sites in 2010. Last April, she counted 324 nests on Coney Island. Wires said the island's herons and egrets also consume fish, so it's highly questionable whether shooting the cormorants will solve the problem with the fishery, if there is one.
DNR's fisheries research manager Pereira goes further, saying there's no evidence that cormorants and other birds have hurt fish populations at Lake Waconia. Pereira said that anglers have complained about fewer young walleye, but that's partly because the DNR switched from stocking the lake with 6-inch fingerlings to newly hatched fry.
If evidence did exist, the DNR, Fish and Wildlife Service and Wildlife Services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, could work together to kill protected birds.
In a more widely known case, thousands of cormorants have been shot on Little Pelican Island on Leech Lake in northern Minnesota since 2005 because of concerns about how a much larger cormorant colony was affecting yellow perch and walleye populations in the Leech Lake tribal fishery and nearby waters.
Shooting is tricky
At Lake Waconia, damage to vegetation on part of Coney Island and a complaint by its owner has allowed the Fish and Wildlife Service to step in and allow federal sharpshooters to shoot cormorants during the past four years.
Steve Lewis, biologist in the Service's Division of Migratory Birds, said he authorized 200 cormorants to be killed in 2008, and 400 in 2009.
In 2010 he OK'd the killing of 600 birds, and then another 400 later that year, but it was too late in the season for those extra birds to be taken.
This year, he authorized 1,000 birds to be killed, but shooters could find only about 350.
"Part of the problem is people operating boats near the island," he said, which scares the birds when sharpshooters are trying to kill them.
It's tricky, he said, since the killings must occur in late April or early May after cormorants have begun nesting, but before protected herons and egrets in the same area have settled in and laid eggs.
Disturbing the other birds and causing them to abandon their eggs would violate the federal law, he said.
Wires said that the current law is flexible enough to deal with local problems. It allows plenty of cormorants to be killed if there's likely damage to private property, or to a fishery, she said.
"We don't need more aggressive management policies," she said. "We need greater tolerance for these species that have been here for millions of years."
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388