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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative


Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

Unbelievable: A Land Conservancy and Conservationist Who Value Nature

The Extraordinarily Unusual Really Should Be the Norm

Published 04/07/11

My colleagues who have formed an organization to protect a native species of bird from being shot in large numbers while nesting were shocked to read that a “land conservancy” agrees with us. So does a conservationist.

Double-breasted cormorant
(Painting by Barry Kent MacKay)

You may think you misread that paragraph. What organization set up to protect land would want to slaughter nesting birds? Who would do that in the name of conservation?

Well, if the bird is the double-crested cormorant, the default position of “conservation” agencies is all too often that they just don’t belong and their numbers must be “controlled” to prevent the natural consequences of their very existence.

Double-crested cormorants are native. They have been here all along, but they have been so demonized, ironically because they were once endangered, that reason and logic do not prevail here in eastern North America.

I think the problem is, paradoxically, that the cormorant is vulnerable to persecution, and was therefore twice eliminated from large swaths of North America. The first time, of which there is very little evidence, but it does exist, was during a period of uncontrollably aggressive wildlife slaughter through the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, when unregulated slaughter of wildlife saw the reduction or extinction of a variety of species in eastern North America.

And, long before recovering from that loss, the cormorant suffered again when, as it was attempting to re-establish itself in eastern North America, there were large declines as a result of the use of DDT after World War II. Although the exact mechanics of how it happened are a matter of debate, several top-of-the-food-chain, fish-eating species went into decline coincident to the spread of DDT, and rebounded when use of the pesticide was reduced or eliminated.

But the core belief among many hunting and fishing organizations is that the cormorant is an “invasive” species that competes with them for desirable “game” fish. Ironically many of those “game” fish are themselves, unlike the cormorant, totally alien to the waters where they were put to provide “sport” for recreational anglers.

Study after study has shown that the cormorants mostly have little or no negative impact on “desirable” species of “game” or “commercial” fish. That message has yet to permeate in the United States, where wildlife management agencies bow to the anglers’ lobbies and slaughter tens of thousands of double-crested cormorants. But in Canada we have had a little better luck. While less-educated fishing interests still rant and rave against cormorants, at least the federal and provincial wildlife management agencies have pretty much abandoned that argument, knowing it’s bogus.

But they have glommed on to another argument: Cormorants, they claim, destroy habitat. If you think about it (which cormorant detractors avoid doing) suggesting that a cormorant colony destroys vegetation is like saying a herd of bison, or African antelopes, tramples and consumes grassland. It’s true, but also part of an ecological realty that dates back millions of years and leads to no permanent loss. There is nothing less “natural” about a colony of birds than there is about trees on islands and headlands they inhabit.

But that is not understood, or at least not acknowledged, by either federal or provincial government agencies in eastern Canada, especially in the Great Lakes region. That is what is so delightfully astounding about the news out of Kingston, Ontario.

Let me explain that most lake islands that could host cormorant colonies, don’t. But when cormorants do appear the change in vegetation, as a result of the cormorants’ presence, can be rapid and dramatic.

Snake Island is only two-tenths of a hectare in size, and Salmon Island is only half that , both donated to the Land Conservancy for Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, near the east end of Lake Ontario.

The islands were donated to the conservancy, and guess what? They are going to be left natural! That means cormorants, or any other native birds, other animals or plants, are expected to be protected there, to do as they’ve always done as part of the natural processes by which species have existed and evolved for literally billions of years before humans appointed themselves as tin gods dictating what the environment “should” look like, in deference to the hook-and-bullet fraternity.

And three cheers and hat’s off to Mary Alice Snetsinger, a conservation biologist who recognizes that the donors wanted the islands to remain natural, and to Vickie Schmolka, president of the conservancy, who is quoted as saying, “Overall, the land conservancy’s approach is to preserve land and let nature take its course.”

Exactly.

Blogging off,
Barry

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