Washington, DC — A federal court has ruled that “depredation” orders under which tens of thousands of double-crested cormorants are killed each year were illegally issued, according to a ruling posted today in a lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The court found that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) clearly violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in authorizing killing double crested cormorants in 24 states east of the Mississippi without current data or adequate scientific analysis.
In 2014, the FWS extended until 2019 an open-ended approval for “lethal removal” of double-crested cormorants “committing or about to commit predation” on fish – the primary diet of the much-maligned black migratory bird – in the covered states. These depredation orders remove the legal protection these large migratory birds would otherwise enjoy under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The claimed rationale is to protect sports fishing and aquaculture, principally catfish farms, although scant evidence exists to prove that the birds appreciably impact fish populations.
In challenging the depredation orders, PEER recruited some of the leading cormorant researchers, including the Service’s own, now-retired, top expert, Dr. Kenneth Stromborg, a wildlife biologist with more than 40 years of experience, as co-plaintiffs. The order issued late yesterday by U.S. District Judge John D. Bates found that FWS violated its legal obligations by –
- Failing to take the required “hard look” at the environmental consequences of its actions, instead just “wholesale recycling” outdated analyses done years ago;
- Ignoring a range of suggested non-lethal alternatives; and
- Limiting its review to options “which would not result in changes to current management strategies.”
“The court found the Fish & Wildlife Service guilty of biological malpractice,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Laura Dumais, noting that the court deemed the FWS violations so blatant that it did not need to reach all of the issues raised in the suit. “This ruling is a step toward ending slaughter as the principal American strategy for managing wildlife.”
In addition, states such as Texas and South Carolina allow private citizens to kill unlimited numbers of double crested cormorants, making the orders’ implementation particularly problematic and unpredictable.
“The Court found that the Service crossed the line,” added Dumais, pointing to the Court’s finding that it was inappropriate for FWS to simply renew the earlier depredation orders until it found the resources to conduct a proper review. “The Court wisely noted that allowing agencies to excuse themselves from complying with NEPA because of budget woes would eviscerate the statute, since many agencies would make that very argument.”
The court, however, stopped short of ending the depredation orders immediately and instead called for additional briefing on an appropriate “remediation plan.”