The cormorant "removal" hunt on lakes Marion and Moultrie has left the state with more questions than answers, and no clear read yet on what to do next.
But the wildlife manager in charge said she expects changes will be made in how a second hunt would be conducted next year.
Emily Cope, S.C. Department of Natural Resources deputy director for wildlife and freshwater fisheries, suggested that any hunt next year would be more restricted, saying the department wants to work with the hunters who kept detailed records and submitted them to DNR, as required.
The February and March depredation hunt was held to appease angler concerns that the cormorants were killing too many game fish. The number of birds killed is hundreds more than 11,000; hunter permit reports are still coming in, so that number could well rise.
More birds were killed than were counted during a survey flight before the February hunt, Cope said, while reports from the lake indicate there's "still a ton of birds" out there. The birds move constantly, and some migrate.
A follow-up survey was planned, but "based on what I'm seeing I'm not thinking we're going to get anything usable out of that," she said. "There's so many changing dynamics."
In the next week to 10 days, DNR staff will sort through reports and concerns, as well as trying to determine what difference the hunt made.
"I don't want to be out there killing birds for the sake of killing birds," Cope said.
The federal government also must approve any future hunt. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of managing the birds as protected migratory species, and gave the state a depredation permit for this year's hunt "to protect public resources."
Audubon South Carolina is challenging the permit, saying any future hunt is unjustified because no science has been produced to show it makes a difference.
"The regulations allow the states to manage based on impact to their fishery resources," said Tom MacKenzie, Fish and Wildlife regional spokesman. Since 2004, more than 11,000 birds have been killed each year during similar hunts in Great Lakes states, he said. "We're not seeing a precipitous drop in numbers at this point."
DNR launched the removal hunt this year under pressure from legislators, who tacked on a budget proviso directing the agency "through the use of existing funds" to manage public participation in "cormorant control activities." A similar proviso has been added to the 2014-2015 budget, which still is pending in the legislature.
Angling groups have sought a removal of some sort for years, arguing the large number of birds on the lakes are eating too many game fish and destroying the cypress trees where they roost. The lakes are a popular fishing destination.
Department staff were surprised when more than 800 people qualified for the hunt that the agency put together - far more than expected, so many that the agency didn't have the staff to enforce bag limits. Hunters were required to attend a training session.
How many cormorants remain around the lakes also is unclear, although observers generally agree there are a lot, and they are increasing. People who frequent the lake said they haven't seen fewer birds after the hunt.
Cormorants are long-lived waterbirds that nest in colonies as large as a few thousand. An estimated 2 million of the birds are in North America.
As herring move into the lakes to spawn in the spring, huge numbers of migrating cormorants are expected to arrive to feed.
The cormorants' impact on the lakes' game fish isn't clear. Marion and Moultrie are relatively shallow, stagnant and heavily fished. They have long been a problematic fishery to manage. Studies have shown that cormorants eat a tremendous amount of fish, but so do other birds and fish.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.
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