This is not the place to go into details, but in April and May I found myself on four occasions living in the 21st century, benefitting from GPS navigation, cellphones and my new digital camera, while viewing the bloody results of early 19th century thinking.
Before Charles Darwin, before the basic tenets of evolution and ecology came together, human policy tended to treat the natural world as an entity to be controlled, exploited and defeated by us. We were godly beings apart from nature, hubristic in our right to do as we pleased. Forests felled, species wiped out, native peoples shoved aside and profits made from “resources” evaluated by the amount of money we could earn by their exploitation, destroying what annoyed us.
Our ancestors tended to classify animal species as “good” or “bad” based on their immediate economic value or esthetic interest. “Game” species were good, thus species who ate game species were “bad.” Species who ate species who hurt our economic value could be good; their predators therefore were bad.
We had yet to understand the dynamic interactions between predators and prey. Hawks, owls and fish-eating species were, like wolves and foxes and snakes, bad, unless some economic value could be squeezed from them. Foxes were good, for example, if their skins could be sold, bad if they ate a grouse or raided the hen house. Rabbits were good if properly cooked, bad if munching in the vegetable garden.
Slowly things changed as scientists and naturalists came to realize that predators, all species, played roles in the ecological whole, and that “good” and “bad” were highly subjective designations based on simplistic and short-sighted value systems and quite lacking in scientific objectivity. To at least some degree public policy began shifting in reflection of growing understanding about naturally evolved predator-prey relationships.
Too often wildlife management agencies remain mired in early 19th century thinking. To a major degree this reflects political responses to concerns of a public where ignorance of nature is rampant. We also have immense capacity to resent other beings, and while political correctness is slowly curbing overt bias against humans who are different, animals are seen as ours to hate and abuse on whatever pretext. And few North American species seem to trigger more irrational prejudice than the double-crested cormorant.
In the United States, wildlife management agencies still kill large numbers of these native birds out of concern that cormorants eat too many fish. Study after study essentially indicates otherwise, and here in Ontario, at least, we’ve managed to get that particular argument off the table, simply because it is incorrect.
Indeed, as our boat left the mainland on southern Lake Erie’s northern shore for the hour and a quarter trip to Middle Island, I noted how one saw cormorants here or there, sometimes in flocks, but until we reached their island nursery, most water was empty of them. But we passed mile after mile of buoys and markers indicating a vast network of fishing nets whose consumption of fish dwarfs what the cormorants consume.
But cormorant excrement is high in nutriments that, in concentration, kill vegetation. While none of the trees on Middle Island is anything but common, several species are at the northern end of their range, thus rare in Ontario, where the mainland has been largely denuded of native forests. The great egret, the world’s commonest heron, is also fairly near the limit of its range and so one of the rationales for killing cormorants is to protect the trees for the egrets to nest in.
But Parks Canada managed to chase off the egrets. Nesting birds are vulnerable and even egrets, known for their nest tenacity, couldn’t take the pressure. We saw one on the first day of culling and a pair on the last day, but all were driven away as the gunmen made their way up the length of the island, shooting cormorants off their nests.
In a review of the first five years of culling, Parks Canada claimed that great blue herons were not especially bothered by the fusillades, not leaving their nests for more than 12 minutes. We knew that was utter nonsense, but to prove it when not allowed on the island is difficult. The island is off-limits to all but Parks Canada and their gunners, and after much negotiation involving Parks Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police, we were only allowed to anchor in one location with a limited view of the island.
But our position did provide a good view of one specific great blue heron nest whose owners tried to incubate, but wound up standing beside, or leaving, the nest for literally hours on end. Other great blue herons had to stand on the sand spit that extends off one end of Middle Island, a waste of their time/energy budget that could not help but compromise egg and brood survivability.
Given all the real conservation problems and challenges the world increasingly faces, it seems such a shame to see so much money go into such a cruel and needless exercise as shooting thousands of cormorants off their nests. The cormorants are native; if they kill off some or all of the trees it in no way results in anything other than an offense to the esthetics of some people who want to preserve the trees because they don’t realize or care that the cormorants belong. They say they want to preserve the “Carolinian” species, but there is nothing non-Carolinian about a cormorant colony in the middle of Lake Erie!
After the last shot was fired the birds could settle down and try, as they have done for so many millions of years before we came along, to raise their families. They are not good birds, not bad birds, just birds who belong in nesting colonies on islands in Lake Erie.
Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA