In 2014, hunters killed 11,653 double-crested cormorants on Lakes Marion and Moultrie (Santee Cooper) in South Carolina. Such an event would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. That’s because cormorants are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
But in recent years both federal and state resource managers recognized that these fishing-eating birds are causing problems for our fisheries, as their populations explode. Vocal, angry anglers played no small part in that recognition.
More recently, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) allowed a limited hunting season for bears, in the wake of an increasing number of incidents in which bears damaged property, killed pets, and injured people.
What do these two incidents have in common? They highlight who we are as a species and what we must do if we are to share land and water with other species.
We are beings who alter our environment to meet our needs. We clear the land to farm and to build cities, homes, and highways. We erect dams to control floods, irrigate formerly arid lands, and generate hydropower.
And when we do those things, we take away the habitat of other species, such as black bears in Florida.
Many think that we manage only domestic animals. In truth, if we are to have healthy populations of most wildlife species, we must manage them as well.
And that means sometimes that we must kill some of them because their numbers are too great to be sustained in their remaining habitat and/or they pose a threat to us.
As they were relentlessly hunted and their habitat destroyed, buffalo, deer, and turkey nearly disappeared. But enlightened management has brought them back, and now regular hunts keep their numbers at sustainable levels for their available habitat.
The cormorant is an interesting exception to the rule. That’s because it habitat has not been diminished by us, but rather greatly expanded by the reservoirs behind all of those dams that we’ve built. That’s why it has become such a nuisance species. Many no longer migrate, but instead stay year-around, feasting on fish and expanding their numbers.
Of course, many of those who call themselves animal lovers do not want to hear such rational arguments. They did not like the killing of so many cormorants in South Carolina, and they've been relentless in their hate-filled verbal attacks on the FWC, one of the best wildlife agencies in the nation. (Check out some of the comments here.)
Clearly, few, if any, of the attackers understand wildlife, their habitat needs, and the complexity of management.These people want us to either ignore the problem or attempt to solve it in an impractical way.
Several years ago, the Missouri Department of Conservation decided to do something about the overpopulation of deer in suburban St. Louis awhile back. Its first choice was to have a managed hunt. But bowing to pressures from animal lovers, it went with the much more expensive option of trapping and moving the deer.
The agency later discovered that most of those transplanted deer starved to death because their new habitat contained little to none of the types of plants that they were accustomed to eating in the suburbs.
Moving bears won’t solve the problem in Florida either. Suitable bear habitat in the state already is at peak population. Otherwise the animals wouldn’t have moved in so close to humans in the first place.
Additionally, those that have ventured into civilization now grow fat as they scavenge garbage around homes or are intentionally fed by these same animal lovers who have exacerbated the problem with their compassion. In other words, the bears now associate humans with food and if trapped and moved, they’ll just head for the nearest subdivision.
The reality is that we must live with the consequences of our actions as a species that alters its environment, and one of those consequences is that we must manage the other species that share our land and water.