Pretext for killing shot down in court
PORTLAND, Oregon––Rushing to kill double-crested cormorants before opponents of the killing could get to court, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and USDA Wildlife Services on April 7, 2016 opened fire near East Sand Island, near the mouth of the Columbia River.
“Federal agents in boats are using shotguns to shoot birds out of the sky as they fly and forage in the Columbia River Estuary,” e-mailed Portland Audubon conservation director Bob Sallinger.
Massacre began a week after ruling
The shooting began just a week after Washington D.C. federal district judge John D. Bates ruled in a case brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had improperly allowed fish farmers and Native American tribes to kill as many as 160,000 double-crested cormorants per year. The cormorant killing has been allowed since 1998 in 13 states to protect fish farms, and since 2003 in 24 states to protect “sport fish” from predation.
Summarized a Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility media release, “The court found that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service clearly violated the National Environmental Policy Act in authorizing killing double crested cormorants in 24 states east of the Mississippi without current data or adequate scientific analysis.”
The background, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility media release continued, is that “In 2014, the Fish & Wildlife Service extended until 2019 an open-ended approval for ‘lethal removal’ of double-crested cormorants ‘committing or about to commit predation’ on fish. 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.”
Bates found that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service inappropriately recycled outdated data and impact analysis, ignored non-lethal alternatives to killing cormorants, and reviewed only options “which would not result in changes to current management strategies.”
Said Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility staff attorney Laura Dumais, “The court found the Fish & Wildlife Service guilty of biological malpractice. This ruling is a step toward ending slaughter as the principal American strategy for managing wildlife. The Fish & Wildlife Service can no longer Xerox forward stale and unsupported practices simply because it will not take the time to consider alternatives.”
However, cautioned the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility media release, “The court stopped short of ending the depredation orders immediately, and instead called for additional briefing on an appropriate ‘remediation plan.’”
No “appreciable benefit”
Assessed Portland Audubon, “The court found that the government failed to demonstrate that killing cormorants provided any appreciable benefit to the fish that the killing was meant to protect. These are the same issues that plaintiffs have raised in litigation opposing the lethal control program at East Sand Island. Further, the federal agencies killing cormorants in the Columbia estuary point to the same management plan rejected by the D.C. court as the foundational plan underpining the mass killing at East Sand Island.”
E-mailed U.S. Fish & Wildife Service spokeswoman Laury Parramore to Associated Press, “The Service is reviewing and studying the decision.”
The “review and study” lasted less than a week before the shooting started at East Sand Island.
“It is very troubling that the Federal Government would begin killing birds knowing that the courts are likely to rule on the legality of the program within a matter of days or weeks,” offered Animal Legal Defense Fund executive director Stephen Wells. “This demonstrates the degree to which the government remains fixated on scapegoating the birds, regardless of any other factors. Federal agencies ignored their own science, as well as overwhelming public opposition to this mass killing, so sadly it comes as no surprise that they would also ignore the legal process.”
“We have documented problems here in the Northwest very similar to those cited by the court in halting cormorant killings in the eastern U.S.,” said Sallinger. “Yet the government is going ahead with plans to shoot thousands of birds in the Columbia Estuary without waiting for a decision on whether its conduct is lawful. The government is already guilty of senseless, illegal slaughter of tens of thousands of cormorants in the east; moving forward with killing cormorants in the west under these circumstances is unconscionable.
Goal: to kill 15%-plus
“Under their current permits,” Salinger continued, “the Corps of Engineers will be allowed to kill 3,114 double-crested cormorants, 93 Brant’s cormorants, and 9 pelagic cormorants, and destroy 5,247 double-crested cormorant nests at East Sand Island during 2016.
“During 2015,” Salinger recalled, “the Corps of Engineers killed over 1,700 birds and destroyed more than 5,000 nests. The Corps’ ultimate goal is to kill upwards of 15% of the entire population of double-crested cormorants west of the Rocky Mountains.”
U.S. Federal District Judge Michael Simon on May 8, 2015 allowed the killing at East Sand Island to proceed, but allowed the Audubon Society of Portland and co-plaintiffs to continue litigation against it, anticipating that final oral arguments in the case would be heard in March 2016.
Documents later produced via the process of discovery showed that U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service already knew, and had long known, that killing cormorants near the mouth of the Columbia River would have no beneficial outcome for either salmon or steelhead.
Analysis was withheld
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service analysis “was withheld during the public process that resulted in the decision by federal agencies to kill more than 10,000 double-crested cormorants and destroy more than 26,000 nests,” over several years, “and directly contradicts assertions made in the Environmental Impact Statement and Records of Decision,” charged the Audubon Society of Portland and four co-plaintiffs.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife found that “efforts to reduce predation by double-crested cormorants are expected to result in no changes or benefits to these fish populations in terms of increasing adult returns or abundance,” whereas “efforts to reduce mortality during passage through the hydro system are expected to result in increased productivity and abundance of steelhead.”
This, said Sallinger, “confirms what we’ve argued for years. The federal agencies responsible for recovering endangered fish should take steps to save salmon and steelhead by improving federal dam operations, rather than making native birds the scapegoats for human-caused declines in Columbia Basin salmon runs. This is a senseless slaughter,” Sallinger charged. “The government knew it and chose to conceal this information.”
Hearings in the Portland Audubon case against the East Sand Island killing, postponed in May 2015 to March 2016, were later postponed again, giving the Corps of Engineers an opening to proceed with killing cormorants despite both the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service data and Judge John D. Bates’ ruling in Washington D.C.