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Great Lakes Article:

Cormorants straining West Sister Island ecosystem
By Rick Neale
Port Clinton News Herald
08/21/03


WEST SISTER ISLAND -- Ohio's sole national wildlife refuge is being besieged by double-breasted cormorants, a burgeoning bird species that's wrecking the ecosystem with its corrosive droppings.

West Sister Island is an uninhabited, forested sanctuary, located nine miles offshore from Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station. Roughly 40 percent of the heron and egret populations in the Great Lakes region use the 82-acre island as nesting ground. But cormorants are now threatening to muscle out the island's native birds.

Thousands of the black-feathered invaders now line the rocky shoreline, shoulder-to-shoulder, packing West Sister Island's gravel beaches and limestone cliffs. Hundreds more roost in hackberry trees -- dozens of which have been defoliated into gray skeletons by poisonous cormorant wastes.

"This is way worse than it was last year. I was out here the last two years, and this is horrible," said Steve Dushane, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. "This is exponential. It's way worse than I've ever seen it."

Cormorants were first spotted on West Sister Island in 1992. The small island now bustles with more than 2,600 nesting pairs, said Mark Shieldcastle, project leader at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' nearby Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station. An undetermined number of cormorants also inhabit the island from other locales.

"We're definitely starting to see some tree damage from the droppings," Shieldcastle said. "They're highly acidic, so it just burns the plants. Deterioration is escalating.

"Saving this island from destruction is highly important."

Habitat loss and overcrowding could encroach on West Sister Island's native birds, including great blue

herons, great egrets, black-crowned night herons, snowy eagles and dozens of other species.

Cormorant populations have exploded across the Great Lakes, overrunning East Sister and Middle islands in nearby Canadian waters. The large water birds feast on fish by diving into Lake Erie, and fishermen are blaming the birds for lowered smallmouth bass numbers in some areas.

The pests nest 50 to 70 feet off the ground, making it all but impossible to oil eggs or destroy their ball-shaped nests. Federal and state wildlife officials have contemplated a cormorant hunting season -- but the birds taste bad. And throwing West Sister Island open to hunters could create further complications, Shieldcastle said.

"All the species intermingle, so you can't just come out and start shooting birds," he said. "That's cutting your own throat if you're going to disturb the species you're trying to protect.

Friday, federal wildlife officials from USFWS and Canada met with ODNR and Ontario provincial biologists in Windsor at an inaugural "cormorant summit," Shieldcastle said. The agencies hope to create a orchestrated campaign across Lake Erie to counterattack the cormorant threat.

"Green Island is suffering the same sort of devastation," Ohio House Minority Leader Chris Redfern, D-Catawba Island said. "The state and federal governments need some sort of concerted effort to start thinning the population. Immediately."

Public access is prohibited at West Sister Island, which is open only to wildlife officials and researchers.


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