Suit to Nix Double-Crested Cormorant Shoot-On-Sight Orders
Legal Bid to Save a Quarter-Million Aquatic Birds From Slaughter Across 24 States
Washington, DC — A second five-year renewal of federal “depredation” orders for killing an estimated 45,000 double-crested cormorants each year is legally deficient and scientifically vacuous, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). If successful, the suit will block shoot-on-sight authorizations for the fish-eating bird in 24 states east of the Mississippi.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service extended until 2019 open-ended authorization for “lethal removal” of double-crested cormorants “committing or about to commit predation” on fish – the much-maligned black migratory bird’s primary diet – in the covered states. The rationale for these depredation orders is to protect sports fishing and aquaculture, principally catfish farms.
If fully implemented the orders could authorize “take” of as many as 160,000 cormorants per year – almost 10% of the entire estimated the North American population. But under the orders, FWS has effectively abdicated oversight in states such as Texas which allow unlimited take of cormorants by any licensed hunter. Indeed, just this spring, South Carolina allowed hunters to kill more than 11,000 cormorants over the span of one month, an event which alone will likely bump up the number of cormorants killed in 2014 across the nation by 25 % over past yearly averages. If replicated in other states, hunting events like this one could overshoot FWS’ projections for “take” numbers and even significantly damage the entire interior DCCO population in a single year.
As co-plaintiffs, PEER has assembled some of the leading researchers, including the Service’s own, now-retired, top expert, Dr. Kenneth Stromborg, a wildlife biologist with more than 40 years of experience who has published several cormorant studies. Filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the suit also highlights major missteps by FWS, such as –
- Failing to consider factors that enter into the definition of a “significant” impact under NEPA, such as whether environmental impacts are highly uncertain, whether the action is controversial, and whether an action might establish a harmful precedent;
- Relying on inadequate science and ignoring relevant and recent studies on DCCO declines; and
- Introducing lead-based ammunition into sensitive aquatic environments through handguns and rim-fire rifles (including the ubiquitous .22 caliber), weapons for which the agency does not require the use of non-toxic bullets.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), all major federal actions that will “significantly affect” the environment must go through a rigorous review process, including a study of potential alternatives. Although FWS states that killing tens of thousands of DCCOs per year will make a significant enough impact on fish populations to justify renewing the orders, the agency simultaneously concludes that there is no “significant impact” under the law.
“This gymnastics of semantics contravenes both the spirit and the letter of NEPA,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Laura Dumais.
Although the agency has had over a decade – including a previous 5-year extension – to research the orders’ effectiveness, the agency admits that “resource limitations” precluded the “completion of a thorough review.” Indeed, the agency fails to show that the orders have any appreciable impact on fish populations. “Without sufficient scientific analysis of impacts and alternatives, the Service has simply Xeroxed forward stale and unproven policies,” stated Dumais, adding, “Incredibly, after more than a decade of these orders, the Service does not have any evidence showing that they actually work as intended.”
“In short, this suit is an indictment of the Fish & Wildlife Service for biological malpractice,” added Dumais. “The Service’s treatment of the double-crested cormorant epitomizes the growing militarization of American wildlife management, taking us back a few centuries to reestablish lethal take on a mass scale as the default posture.”