Point Pelee National Park, on Killing Spree, Chases Threatened Species in Senseless Act
Canadian Blog by Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Unbelievable. That word describes what happened in early May in one of the world's most famous national parks for seeing birds at the height of the spring migration. The park is Point Pelee, a tapering point of land thrusting into Lake Erie at the southernmost tip of Canada. As of 2001, the park also includes Middle Island, hidden over the lake's southern horizon, a mere 18.5 hectares (46 acres) in size, and currently uninhabited. It is the southernmost land still part of Canada, thus home to several plant species reaching the northern tip of their ranges in southwestern Ontario, where they have largely been eliminated from the mainland by agriculture and urban sprawl.
Middle Island is also home to colonies of nesting ring-billed gulls, great egrets, black-crowned night-herons, great blue herons, and double-crested cormorants.
Cormorants have been deemed "hyper-abundant" by Parks Canada, concerned that cormorant excrement kills vegetation (including, perhaps, some of the species that have not been adequately protected on the mainland). These species are commonplace to the south, in the U.S., which starts literally a few meters away from Middle Island. (For more, click here and here.)
And so, each spring, as my Canadian colleagues and I take notes from a boat anchored near offshore, sharp-shooters armed with high-velocity .222 rifles slaughter thousands of cormorants as the birds try to nest.
Cormorants are devoted parents who assiduously attend their eggs. They are forever entwining their necks and displaying each other to reinforce strong pair bonds, while shooters pick them off, leaving the ground littered with thousands of rotting bodies. Park visitors are not allowed on the island—ironically "to protect" the nesting birds. Egret and heron numbers have also declined.
But, if all of this is not bizarre enough, the situation escalated into high surrealism this May with the arrival of 25 American white pelicans on the island while the cull was occurring. This is a threatened species in Ontario, whose nearest nesting site is north of Lake Superior, about 700-800 miles away. They nest in colonies with double-crested cormorants.
We foolishly believed that Parks Canada would want these birds to stay. Heavy-bodied and fish-dependent, there are few places better suited for "staging" (resting and feeding while migrating—essential to survival) than Middle Island.
But now, the response we got was from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, which administers the provincial Endangered Species Act, which said, in part: "Pelee Island National Park staff have documented no effects (e.g. extended or permanent displacement, mortality, etc.) of their management actions on American White Pelican. Additionally, Middle Island is not considered suitable nesting habitat and management actions do not take place within the area of the Island that American White Pelicans are using." Click here for the full text of the letter.
Of course, "management actions" (gunfire) chased the pelicans, and there's no way to know the effect on these birds. The legislation clearly states that threatened species are to be protected throughout their life cycle.
And, while they may not now nest on Middle Island, there's no way to know if they might. Much larger range extensions are commonplace, with such western bird species as the yellow-headed blackbird, Brewer's blackbird, black-billed magpie, common raven, and Forster's tern all now nesting in new regions east and south of "normal" breeding range. Some species have widely separated populations. That even includes the American white pelican, who has a series of "disjunct" nesting ranges separated by areas where it does not nest, and who is trying to expand its range.
Sadly, Parks Canada clings to a "museum" or "gardening" approach to management, trying to maintain an arbitrarily fixed state of ecological affairs through its relentless war on wildlife.
Following is the letter received from the Director of the Species Conservation Policy Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry:
I would like to thank you for reaching out to relay your concerns regarding Double-crested Cormorant management actions on Middle Island and possible adverse effects on American White Pelican.
As you are aware, American White Pelican is listed as a threatened species under the provincial Endangered Species Act, and receives both species and habitat protection. The most sensitive aspect of American White Pelican ecology is associated with breeding; and many of the provincial protection and recovery approaches are intended to address threats to nesting colonies.
To assist in the recovery of American White Pelican within Ontario, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) has published a provincial recovery strategy (2011), which provides advice to government on recommended recovery approaches and habitat considerations; a government response statement (2011), which outlines the provincial government's policy direction on the recovery of the species; and a habitat regulation (2012), which provides a legal description of the area of habitat that is protected under the Endangered Species Act. These documents may be found online at the following link: https://www.ontario.ca/page/american-white-pelican.
I have spoken with MNRF staff and they have informed me that, while individual American White Pelicans are often sighted across much of Ontario, there are two primary breeding localities; Lake of the Woods and Lake Nipigon. Secondary breeding localities include the north shore of Lake Superior.
American White Pelicans appear to be experiencing a range expansion within Ontario, and observations on Lake Erie have increased over the last four to five years, including on Pelee Island and Middle Island, as well as at Point Pelee National Park. These birds are in the process of migrating, likely to the Lake of the Woods breeding site, and are using the Lake Erie Islands and shoreline as migration stopover sites.
MNRF is aware of the cormorant management actions being undertaken on Middle Island by the Parks Canada Agency and is under the understanding that Pelee Island National Park staff have documented no effects (e.g. extended or permanent displacement, mortality, etc.) of their management actions on American White Pelican. Additionally, Middle Island is not considered suitable nesting habitat and management actions do not take place within the area of the Island that American White Pelicans are using.
I would like to thank you once again for your concern regarding the recovery of American White Pelican and for your commitment to conservation of Ontario's natural heritage.