Here's a journalistic fact: it's really hard to get government employees to go on the record. And when dealing with controversial issues, it's nearly impossible. Folks are plenty willing to talk on background, without attribution. However, offer to place attributed words out in disinfecting sunshine and they melt into shadows like a vampire.

And then there is Thurman Booth. A throwback, Booth — who runs the Arkansas branch of the USDA's Wildlife Services (WS) — won't waste your time being cute with words, won't debate the meaning of what “is is,” and won't abide fools. Flat-out, Booth will step into the aforementioned shadows and kick a vampire's butt. Thurman Booth will tell you the truth.

Right now, Booth is upset about Millwood Lake. Actually, he hasn't stopped being upset about the Texarkana-area lake since 1999, when a nesting colony of normally migratory cormorants was found. Booth believes the nests are a warning sign that must be properly addressed.

“We've had three years to deal with this and Lake Millwood is getting worse. We're right back where we were in 1999 when we found about 100 nests there. At that time, we went in and started killing them. But there were a bunch of legal hoops (National Environmental Policy Act, making sure permits were correct, etc.) we had to jump through to do that, so we were late getting to the birds in both 1999 and 2000.”

To make a long story shorter, in two years Booth and colleagues got the nests of the voracious and skilled hunters down to 43.

“I thought we were making some progress and (the Interior Department's) Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) must have figured the same. They're determined to protect those cormorants at Millwood.”

In a continuing feud between the agencies, Booth says FWS made a judgment that the permit WS had didn't “authorize us to kill the nesting cormorants on Millwood Lake. They'd never made that judgment before anywhere else. FWS told us if we shot them for another year we'd be violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Their contention was that there was no data to indicate those nesting birds were causing problems.”

(Editor's note: for an in-depth look at both Millwood Lake and an examination of the turf war between WS and FWS, see DFP's “Agencies differ on cormorant control” from the March 8, 2002, issue and available at deltafarmpress.com.)

Folks around Millwood tell a much different story. If you want to see what cormorants are capable of, they say, drive down to the lake and have a look. The lake's sports fish population has been severely depleted, and citizen's committees and politicians are clamoring for attention (legislation is being considered in Congress where WS would have the same powers as FWS in dealing with cormorants). Area bait shops and motels that once serviced fishermen have gone out of business as the word has gotten out: Millwood's fish have disappeared.

At face value, Booth admits what FWS claims is essentially true.

“There haven't been any really good, quantifying studies that say, ‘Here's the set of problems being caused by these nesting cormorants.’ But you don't have to be a genius to understand that if we allow these birds to keep nesting, to keep expanding until they're all over the South, then what's been a winter problem will become a year-round problem. What we're trying to do is prevent that from happening.”

An “F” isn't the only difference between WS and FWS. The two agencies' philosophies are at near polar opposites and, as WS gets its killing permits from FWS, “our hands are tied. We didn't shoot any of the Millwood cormorants in 2001 or this summer,” says Booth.

And now, Millwood Lake is back at 100 nests. The bad part is the birds have scattered to two or three areas that are very difficult to access. One of the sites WS looked at in July took three hours to reach by boat.

“We had to raise the motor and pole in through the stumps. So the birds have begun nesting in more protected and scattered sites — the rookery is fragmenting. Around Millwood Lake there are thousands of acres of potential nesting habitat.”

Could there be more cormorants out there than WS even suspects?

“Yes. Since we weren't going to do anything with them, we just took a couple days several times this summer to try and get an idea of their numbers. We haven't done an aerial search yet.”

Here's the truth, says Booth: there's probably one more year of grace at Millwood Lake. If nothing is done to take out these cormorants, Booth believes, they will disperse and soon be out of control across the South. If that happens, the nesting population will likely be uncontrollable and sports fishing will be threatened throughout the Delta and South.

“If these non-migrating birds disperse and begin nesting up and down the Arkansas River, the bayous, Saline River, Ouachita River and all these other places, then before long there will be nesting colonies around the aquaculture area and sport fish lakes. Cormorants will be everywhere they can do damage. If you think aquaculture is hurting now, just wait until nesting cormorants hang around all year. It's a potential nightmare.”

What frustrates Booth is biologists already know the national cormorant population is too high. “We've even gotten the FWS to passively agree with that fact. So it doesn't make any sense to say, ‘Yeah, we've got too many cormorants, and we should probably reduce the numbers somehow. But we don't want you to kill any nesting birds.’ That's the only effective way to reduce the population!

“We've been shooting them on wintering grounds as hard as we can — WS, fish farmers and everyone else that can do so — but haven't made a dent. Fish farmers, under a depredation order, can kill as many as possible around their ponds. But it's had no effect on cormorant populations. In fact, the population has tripled during the time all this supposed heavy shooting has been going on. We will never shoot enough wintering birds to slow them down. We must go into nesting areas and take care of this problem now.”

And still FWS, like Nero before it, fiddles while Millwood Lake burns.

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.