PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Five conservation groups brought a federal complaint Monday against three federal agencies to stop the decimation of double-crested cormorants west of the Rocky Mountains.
The groups claim the federal agencies blame the birds for salmon declines instead of focusing on the “mismanagement of the federal hydropower system,” according to a statement jointly issued by the Audubon Society of Portland, the Wildlife Center of the North Coast, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of Animals.
The action those groups filed in Oregon on Monday targets the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services.
“The corps has lost four lawsuits in federal court over the past decade due to its failure to address the impacts of dams on salmon,” ALDF executive director Stephen Wells said in the statement.
Claiming that little has been done to revamp federal dams since a district court called for “a major overhaul” in a 1994 action concerning the Columbia River Basin’s declining salmon and steelhead populations, the conservation groups detailed the corps’ decision to kill 10,912 adult cormorants and destroy 26,096 nests by oiling eggs or allowing eggs to fail and nestlings to starve after the parents have been shot.
“This mass killing will result in the destruction of 15 percent of the entire population of double-crested cormorants west of the Rocky Mountains, a population already reduced to less than 10 percent of its original size,” the complaint says.
This would purportedly drive the population below sustainable levels. “It is unprecedented that federal agencies would deliberately drive a native species below levels defined as sustainable,” Michael Harris, legal director for Friends of Animals, said in the statement.
The action also maintains that the agencies have not complied with legal requirements for the killings, such as updating a decades old Environmental Impact Statement, analyzing alternative dam operations to benefit salmon as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, applying for appropriate permits, and creating a FWS management plan. “Both the corps and FWS are breaking the law in multiple ways while intentionally putting the western population of double-crested cormorants in real peril,” the suit claims.
Hunters using shotguns would kill the birds as they forage over water during the day, and snipers using night-vision gear on elevated platforms would pick the birds off as they care for their young after dark, the groups say.
“This is not about birds versus fish,” Audubon’s conservation director Bob Sallinger said in a statement. “The corps and other federal agencies have proposed rolling back dam operations that benefit salmon while at the same time targeting thousands of cormorants. Blaming salmon and steelhead declines on wild birds that have coexisted with salmon since time immemorial is nothing more than a diversion.”
Cormorants, large black “prehistoric looking” birds, have been demonized and persecuted down through history, the suit notes.
“The adjective ‘cormorous’ has been used to mean greedy, insatiable, or ravenous,” but “cormorants, on average, eat about one pound of fish per day, which is much less than what a pelican of the same body size eats,” the complaint says.
In addition, cormorants also eat other species of fish that prey on salmon and steelhead, and the salmon decline does not parallel the greatly varying percentages of salmonids eaten by cormorants from year to year, according to studies since 1997, the suit continues.
“Despite acknowledging that ‘there are many causes of mortality to juvenile salmonids’ including hydropower dams (which reduce flow thus reducing sediment movement downstream and decreases the size of the plume in the estuary), degraded habitat conditions such as high water temperatures, hatchery management, and loss of habitat, the corps excluded those options from consideration,” the complaint says (parentheses in original).
Sharnelle Fee, director of the Wildlife Center of the North Coast, noted that “the science supporting this lethal control action is remarkably weak and this action is virtually meaningless from a salmon recovery perspective.”
Daniel Rohlf and Thomas Buchele of the Earthrise Law Center in Portland, Ore., are the attorneys for plaintiffs.
Representatives of the defendants did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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