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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Caspian terns will be looking for a home

Gripping freshly caught salmon smolts, Caspian terns gather near a nesting colony on Rice Island near the mouth of the Columbia River in this May 28, 1998, file photo. After successfully moving the birds from Rice Island to East Sand Island, now the government wants to move them again. 
 (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Jeff Barnard Associate Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. – The federal government has approved plans to spend more than $2.4 million to squeeze the world’s largest colony of salmon-eating Caspian terns off a Columbia River island so they will establish new nesting areas as far away as San Francisco Bay.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan calls for developing bare stretches of sand in Washington, Oregon and California where the terns can nest, then letting vegetation gradually grow back on East Sand Island near the mouth of the Columbia River.

“Studies show that a two-thirds reduction in the tern concentration on East Sand Island could result in a 1 percent or greater increase in the growth rates of four populations of Columbia River Basin steelhead,” said Dave Allen, director of the Pacific Region of Fish and Wildlife.

The 9,175 nesting pairs, which represent about 70 percent of the West Coast population, were lured with recordings of bird calls and decoys to East Sand Island from Rice Island after biologists found they were eating millions of young salmon and steelhead migrating to the ocean.

Moving the birds 15 miles downriver from Rice Island in 1999 and 2000 reduced the numbers of salmon in the birds’ diet, because they were eating other small fish as well. But having so many of them nesting in one place left them vulnerable to a catastrophic event, such as a storm or disease outbreak.

The American Bird Conservancy and three other wildlife groups sued in 2000, arguing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife failed to involve the public in developing the tern management plan as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The relocation plan is part of a settlement.

The plan calls for shrinking the bare sand area where the birds nest on East Sand Island from about four acres to about one acre over the course of five years by allowing grass to grow. Before shrinking the nesting area, Fish and Wildlife would create a total of eight acres of new nesting areas.

One would be at Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Three would be in Oregon at Fern Ridge Reservoir, Summer Lake and Crum Lake. Three would be in San Francisco Bay on Brooks Island, Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, and Hayward Regional Shoreline.

Because the birds are long-lived and fly long distances, they are expected to find the new nesting areas within a few years, and about 2,500 pairs will remain on East Sand Island, Allen said.

The plan estimates establishing the new nesting areas will cost about $2.4 million in the first year. Monitoring will cost up to $269,000 a year.

Researchers estimated terns on Rice Island devoured 11 million salmon and steelhead smolts in 1998 – a big chunk of the 95 million to make it as far downstream as the Columbia River estuary. After moving to East Sand Island their salmon consumption dropped to about 4.5 million smolts a year.

Gerald Winegrad, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy, said they were glad to see such a large nesting colony being dispersed so that the birds will be less vulnerable to catastrophes.

However, the government has overestimated the birds’ impact on young salmon, which has been steadily dropping over the years, and the large amount of money for the project could be better spent on overcoming other more significant factors causing the decline in salmon, Winegrad said.

“We think politics and not science is driving this,” he said.

The conservancy disagrees with government projections that the colony could double in coming years, and unhappy the government did not reconsider establishing new nesting colonies at closer locations, such as Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay in Washington, which were dropped due to local opposition to bringing in birds that eat salmon.