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WASHINGTON - To hear the fishermen around Lake Waconia tell it, the ancient black cormorants that congregate on the lake's Coney Island in the summer are the scourge of the fishes and trees.
To naturalists who see the native Minnesota birds as unloved relations of the revered loon, it's all a big fish tale.
On Thursday, a congressional panel was left to sort it all out, hearing a bill by two of Minnesota's leading outdoors-men and congressmen that would give the state wider latitude to shoot some of the federally protected birds.
That's already the standard method of culling cormorant flocks that have hurt fisheries in Leech Lake and other popular recreational areas. Now Carver County's Lake Waconia -- the metro area's second-largest lake -- is ground zero in the battle against a bird long derided for its ability to dive, propel itself underwater and eat prized fish that humans like to put on their dinner plates.
"I'm an angler, and I can tell you, we have seen a decline," said Waconia Mayor Jim Nash. "We've seen that class of medium-sized fish, bluegills, crappies, bass. You're seeing a disconnect there, and we're convinced it is because of the aggressive appetite of the cormorant."
Nash has enlisted the aid of U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chief author of a bill to cede management of the cormorant to the state, much as was done with the wolf population this year. "Residents, marina owners and local officials believe cormorants have consumed an entire generation of fish -- leaving only fry and trophy fish in the lake," Kline said. "This depredation of natural resources has a direct effect on the local economy and jobs."
On Thursday, Kline got his bill before a House Natural Resources subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency that controls migratory birds. He was accompanied by Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who has been trying to win state control over the cormorants since he came to Congress in 1991.
"It's been going on for way too long," Peterson said.
Both Kline and Peterson are avid hunters, with offices full of hunting trophies. They hold seven "Top Gun" congressional trap, skeet and sporting clay shooting awards between them.
But they say the cormorant problem is about fishing, not hunting. It's also about the waste product of what the fish eat, which can denude trees of foliage and leave bird nesting areas a slimy mess.
"The birds eat exclusively fish, so their waste is very acidic -- it's almost like Agent Orange," said Waconia City Council Member Jim Sanborn, who likes to get out on the water several times a week in the summer. "It's not so much fun on an August day if you're downwind."
More than 3,000 residents have signed petitions seeking action. "The first thing you notice when this happens is the depletion of a historic 32-acre island," said marina owner Cindy Mase, a longtime business owner who organized the petition. "It's sad."
State and federal officials say they have responded, mounting culling operations that have taken more than a thousand birds around Lake Waconia in recent years.
The problem, the locals say, is that the necessary federal permits are limited to specific geographic areas, and the birds, being migratory animals, tend to move around. Kline says he wants to remove the federal "red tape."
But there are legal impediments, as well. The Obama administration argues that handing management over to the states would violate international treaties on migratory birds.
Environmentalists also say it would be a step backwards. "It takes us down the slippery slope of 19th-century wildlife management, which is local control," said Don Arnosti, policy director for Audubon Minnesota.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) also opposes Kline's bill, largely because the state lacks the resources to mount the large-scale culling operations now handled by teams of federal agents. "It's an unfunded mandate," said Steve Hirsch, director of the DNR's ecological and water resources division.
DNR officials, as well as many state wildlife experts, say they have seen no decline in the fish population in Lake Waconia, a 3,000-acre body of water blessed with abundant walleye, bass, muskie and northern pike.
"There isn't any problem with the fish population," said University of Minnesota fish and wildlife researcher Linda Wires. "There is a perception that there is a problem."
Nobody argues that there aren't enough birds. After nearly fading into extinction from such pesticides as DDT, the double-crested cormorant, much like the bald eagle, has made a dramatic comeback. There are now an estimated 2 million cormorants in North America -- 70 percent of them in the Great Lakes region and Canada's central prairies.
But cormorants and people don't always get along. Complaints have been registered from Minnesota to Alabama, where catfish farmers have reported bird raids on their fishstock.
After years of inaction, the issue is now getting an airing in Congress, where Peterson and all the Republicans in the Minnesota delegation have signed on in support of Kline's bill. While there is no companion bill in the Senate, Minnesota Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have expressed interest.
The ultimate selling point could be the tourism economy. "Folks want to demonize the fishermen and say we don't want birds eating our fish," Sanborn said. "But that's not it. We want the freedom to be able to maintain the lake as a fishery for recreational and economic uses."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.