In North America, the Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) is currently abundant, widely distributed across five broad geographic regions, and often perceived as overabundant. In many U.S. states and Canadian provinces, policy makers are pressured to significantly reduce cormorant numbers, primarily to minimize conflicts between cormorants and fish resources. Concurrently, large-scale conservation plans recently developed for birds in the Americas depart from the traditional narrow focus on threatened and endangered species to encompass broader and more representative goals (e.g., Partners in Flight’s objective to “keep common birds common”). In recent waterbird conservation initiatives, historic distribution and abundance provide the basis for conservation focus; these initiatives advocate conservation of birds in natural numbers and natural habitats. To provide a context in which current populations of Double-crested Cormorants can be understood, we reviewed historic and current breeding and wintering records to determine historic distribution (pre-1900), current distribution (1970-1999), and extent of range expansion across North America. Early records suggest Double-crested Cormorants were present in large numbers throughout much of their current range; colonies and flocks much larger than any known in the 1990s are well documented. However, numbers sharply declined through the late 1800s as cormorants were greatly reduced and/or extirpated in many areas. The population partially recovered through at least the mid-1900s, but experienced a second major decline during the 1950s-1970s. In the late 1970s, a second rebound began across much of the continent; the largest breeding populations (Canadian/U.S. interior, Atlantic Coast >80% of total) increased from approximately 32,000 pairs in the early 1970s to >226,000 pairs in the late 1990s. Comparison of historic and current records challenges the opinion that cormorants are currently overabundant, and suggests that perception of overabundance rests on socio-political rather than biological or ecological factors. For this species, and others that are seen as competitors with humans, limits of human tolerance (i.e. “social carrying capacity”) are far narrower than those of biological carrying capacity. Because large numbers have been typical for cormorants historically, population targets based on fishery or other objectives derived from human values will likely be readily surpassed, require intensive management, and significantly depart from the concept of conserving birds in natural numbers and natural habitats. Although managing fish-eating birds to benefit fishery yields may increase some fish populations, this approach does not resolve or address the underlying problems causing current fish population declines across the continent, and is in direct conflict with current broad scale conservation initiatives. To ensure inclusion of cormorants and other fish-eating birds in these conservation plans, the avian conservation community must continue to press for programs based on ecosystem health and process that recognize humans, fish and cormorants as three components of a complex system driven by many species and dynamic interactions.
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