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Wildlife group pushes to end bird killing at fish hatchery

by BRETT FRENCH The Billings Gazette
| April 5, 2021 12:00 AM

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Billings bird conservationists have started an online petition seeking to pressure Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to stop killing ospreys and other birds that are eating or harassing largemouth bass at the agency's Miles City Fish Hatchery ponds.

"Enough is enough," said Steve Regele, president of the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society. "We've been trying to work through this internally. We didn't go out raising hell."

But the agencies involved have ignored the group's requests, he said, preferring to work internally. So the Audubon group is seeking to generate public pressure via the petition.

"We've gotten really nothing back from them," he told The Billings Gazette.

"If they're not going to listen to us, then maybe we need more weight."

REGELE SAID he found out late last summer that FWP employees had been killing ospreys and other birds at the hatchery to protect its fish after fellow Audubon members noted a lack of osprey near Miles City.

Osprey are dear to many Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society members who for years have nurtured their restoration along the Yellowstone River. The group has cooperated with banding and blood sampling of chicks to study environmental pollutants and survival. They've erected nesting platforms and launched a baling twine collection program. The birds put the twine in their nests which can lead to entanglement problems.

After looking into reports of fewer birds near Miles City, Regele discovered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had authorized hatchery personnel to kill birds for the past three years.

"From 2018 to 2020, eight ospreys, 105 Canada geese, 26 great blue herons, and 16 double-crested cormorants have been shot," Regele wrote in an email.

Great blue herons are listed as a species of concern in the Montana Field Guild because of recent population declines and a small breeding population.

"Something is wrong here," Regele said.

THE U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must authorize the killing of migratory birds. But first, Wildlife Services — a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — has to review the situation and sign off on the permit.

"We do an assessment of what they have tried and the threat," said John Steuber, Montana director of Wildlife Services.

That assessment goes with FWP's letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's regional office in Denver seeking permission to kill birds protected under the Migratory Bird Act. Steuber said the problem of birds eating fish is widespread across the country at hatcheries and ponds used to raise commercial fish and even for migrating salmon after they pass through dams where they emerge stunned and easy prey for gulls.

"Migratory Bird Depredation Permits are issued only after deterrents such as hazing and harassing of offending birds, and/or habitat modification repeatedly prove unsuccessful," the USFWS wrote in response to a query about the situation. "If a depredation permit is issued, permittees are expected to continue using nonlethal measures to deter birds from the area in conjunction with any authorized trapping or killing. The goal is to resolve or reduce the depredation issue, while minimizing lethal take of migratory birds. "

Regele and more than 600 people who have signed Yellowstone Valley Audubon's petition think there has to be a better way than shooting birds, especially considering Miles City had been home to the easternmost population of osprey along the Yellowstone River.

"They haven't given us anything substantial to indicate they are interested in coming up with a solution," he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service noted the depredation permits are issued yearly, that its biological staff assesses the "application materials to determine whether the requested amount of take is sustainable for the species at regional and national levels. Adjustments or reductions may be made to the take request if it's found that the population of the species could be negatively impacted. Take may be denied if the request is for a bird species that is of national or regional conservation concern, or if the applicant has not implemented techniques (within reason, given that each situation is unique) to reduce the depredation issue."

JAY PRAVECEK, Hatchery Bureau manager for FWP, said his Miles City employees tried everything in their means to scare off fish-eating birds and geese. Although geese don't eat fish, they scare spawning bass off their nests. FWP had Montana Dakota Utilities take down nearby osprey nesting platforms the company had erected to keep the birds off power poles close to the bass ponds. FWP employees tried dogs, big balloons, cracker shells and propane cannons to scare birds, but within a day they were used to the new tactics and unfearful, he said.

The birds killed an estimated 800 fish between 2017 and 2019, Pravecek said, some of them older brood stock that lay eggs for each year's new population – about 125,000 fry a year.

The other problem for FWP is that the bass live in large two- to three-acre ponds, not small concrete raceways that would be easier to cover with netting. The ponds allow the bass to lay their eggs, rather than being cultured by hatchery personnel.

REGELE IS unconvinced there's not a better way.

"There's some smart people out there working on this problem," he said.

Yellowstone Valley Audubon is willing to write grants, research existing literature and provide experts to find a nonlethal solution, but he feels FWP and USFWS have ignored his group's appeals.

Pravecek said FWP has reduced the number of birds it has asked USFWS permission to kill, is seeking advice from East Coast hatcheries that have dealt with similar problems for longer and is looking into stringing flags across the ponds as a deterrent.

"Hopefully we'll find middle ground," he said.

As to the issue of nonnative fish being favored over native birds, Pravecek said his bureau has been asked by the sportsmen and women of Montana to raise fish for them to catch. Bass have been raised in Miles City since the 1930s, he added. Walleye are the other main fish species the hatchery raises.

"Right now it looks like only Miles City is taking birds, and that's not the case," Pravecek said.