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COURTESY AUDUBON SOCIETY OF PORTLAND - The government is killing double-crested cormorants on East Sand Island to save salmon. After a legal battle did not pan out, the Audubon Society of Portland is calling the public's attention to the federal government's killing of hundreds of sea birds offshore from Astoria.

For the past two weeks, officials from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Wildlife Services have been shooting double-crested cormorants from a boat in the Columbia River Estuary, near East Sand Island.

Oregon Public Broadcasting obtained footage of the killings earlier this week, noting that the shotgun blasts were audible from shore.

Diana Fredlund, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, says the "culling" has been going on since May 24, part of their management plan to recover fedarally listed salmon.

The Corps says during peak nesting season, double-crested cormorants can eat up to one pound of fish per day at East Sand Island, and there are about 14,000 nesting pairs feeding young chicks.

"It's a management plan put together and researched in our environmental impact statement," Fredlund says.

Until two weeks ago, the culling was done at night, Fredlund says, so as not to disturb the other birds.

She explained the phases of the operation: At first, when eggs are being laid, the cormorants are attached to the island and actively taking care of their nests.

"That's when we were culling at the island itself. We were shooting at the island. It was at night beause we didn't want to disturb the other birds."

Federal workers segmented the island into management sections, she says. "If they saw a nest whose chick had hatched, that entire management area was put off-limits for culling. They'd move to the next one."

At the same time they were doing "nest oiling," spraying cormorant eggs with vegetable oil so as to keep oxygen out and prevent the eggs from hatching.

This year to date 1,221 double-breasted cormorants and 5 Brand's cormorants were taken.

In the past two weeks, after chicks have fledged (can take care of themselves), they are no longer attached the island and can go foraging.

That's when the boat-based hazing started, Fredlund says.

The Department of Wildlife Services is trained in different types of culling, she says: "They're not targeting the young; they're only looking for double-crested cormorants and they can tell the difference. That's where all of our research has been focused on, and that's the largest population."

The killing will continue until the birds migrate south, in mid- to late August.

Then the Corps will collect their data to study the impact of their culling and adjust the data for next year's permit, which the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife must approve for the culling to continue.

Conservation groups have been arguing for transparency, accusing the Corps of acting in a "shroud of secrecy" in the cover of darkness.

"Audubon believes that transparency is essential," says Audubon Conservation Director Bob Sallinger. "The public has a right to see how the federal government is squandering millions of taxpayer dollar killing protected wild birds. It is absolutely a slaughter. Government agents are racing about in their boat blowing birds out of the sky."

Fredlund says she's aware the management plan appears to have been carried out in secret, but "it's much easier when it's at night because the birds can't see it and it doesn't disturb them."

Sallinger says he's disturbed by the government's response to the issue.

He points to an analysis released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in August under a federal court order that he says shows that killing cormorants will do nothing to help recover salmon.

Audubon has called on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw the permits it issued to the Corps, and investigate why, according to Sallinger, the agency suppressed its own internal analysis.

Meanwhile, the killing will continue until the Corps decides the numbers have reached the right level.

"There's a large population of cormorants here; it's important the culling not negatively impact the Western population," Fredlund says. "We're trying to manage the numbers, not get rid of them."

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