Washington, DC — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will not devote the resources to even consider non-lethal alternatives for managing double-crested cormorants and is instead poised to renew multi-state “depredation” orders for killing an estimated 43,000 of the fish-eating birds per year, according to public comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The orders allow removal of birds “committing or about to commit predation” on fish – the cormorant’s primary diet.
The Service is asking for public comment on its plan to renew for a period of five years two depredation orders covering 24 states east of the Mississippi that would otherwise lapse on June 14, 2014. Both depredation orders have to do with protecting fish (one for sports fish and the other for aquaculture, principally catfish farms) and have been in effect for several years.
Together the two orders authorize lethal “take” of an estimated 160,000 double-crested cormorants per year although the agency estimates that only 27% of the authorization is exercised, meaning that more than 43,000 birds were “harvested” annually during the period from 2004 to 2012. In one scenario, the Service concedes that as much as a 48% decline in the entire double-crested cormorant population could result. Altogether, more than a half-million double-crested cormorants have been legally dispatched under these orders since 1999.
Although it had promised to study alternatives back in 2009 when the orders were last renewed, the Service says it has not done so because “Resource limitations preclude completion of a thorough review of potential revisions to the regulations prior to the 30 June 2014 expiration dates for the depredation orders.” Nonetheless, the Service wants to extend the depredation orders for another five years as “an interim measure” but promises to address concerns and alternatives “in a subsequent analysis.”
“The Fish & Wildlife Service is practicing faith-based biology by merely assuming that killing thousands of cormorants is necessary and beneficial,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The Service has not seriously reexamined its assumption that the double-crested cormorant is a nuisance species, like a winged coyote, that should be shot on sight.”
In its comments, PEER accuses the agency of violating the National Environmental Policy Act for failure to analyze significant environmental impacts and failure to consider feasible and less damaging alternatives, such as increased reliance on reproductive controls, nest destruction and harassment. The PEER comments also spotlight shortcomings such as –
- Introducing loads of lead-based ammunition into fragile aquatic environments. Only permit holders using shotguns are required to use non-toxic shot;
- Ignoring effects on co-nesting birds and “look alike” species such as the neotropic cormorant. In its Draft Environmental Assessment, the Service dismisses all such concerns with the unsupported conclusion that “We have no reason to believe that [state] agencies would not continue to be highly conscientious in avoiding negative impacts to bird species…at management sites”; and
- Abdicating responsible oversight in states such as Texas which allow unlimited take of cormorants by any hunting license holder and without requiring that crippled or wounded birds be retrieved.
“The Service has no real evidence that suppressing double-crested cormorants significantly affects fish populations,” added Ruch, noting that catfish farming has declined precipitously in several states despite heavy cormorant culling, yet the Service has not adjusted the depredation orders accordingly. “The Fish & Wildlife Service seems bent on perpetuating a backdoor taxpayer subsidy to industries that may not even materially benefit from this massive armed biological intervention.”
The public comment period on the extensions closes tomorrow.