(CN) - Environmentalists say there is no scientific basis for the extension of U.S. Fish and Wildlife's "shoot-on-sight" order that has permitted the killing of an estimated half million double-crested cormorants in the last 10 years.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and five biologists and birders sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Director Dan Ashe in federal court.
Cormorants are believed, but not proven, to have contributed to the decline of sport fish populations in many areas, and to have damaged aquaculture, especially catfish farms.
The complaint claims that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re-authorized the killing of tens of thousands of double-crested cormorants without conducting a proper environmental assessment.
In 2003, the agency issued an order permitting 24 states, their wildlife agencies, and recognized Tribes to kill double-crested cormorants "committing or about to commit predation" on fish, the bird's primary diet.
In 2009, the agency conducted an allegedly limited environmental assessment (EA), and extended the order for five years.
As the second expiration date drew near, the agency sought public input on extending the order again.
"Ultimately, FWS received eighty-one letters from the public and agencies with substantive suggestions on the November 8, 2011 notice of intent. Some commenters suggested that the overall objectives were misdirected and FWS neglected its responsibility to protect all native waterbird species including DCCOs [double-crested cormorants] and to promote sound ecological and natural resource use practices. Some commenters suggested other alternatives to those proposed, including focusing on local damage control while developing ecologically sustainable aquaculture and fisheries practices and increasing social carrying capacity for cormorants," the complaint says.
Nevertheless, the agency did not investigate the possibility of these proposed alternatives, citing resource limitations, and re-authorized the "lethal removal" orders.
"Although the orders were based in large part on a perceived need to reduce 'conflict' between DCCOs and the aquaculture industry, the EA does not demonstrate that the industry has benefitted economically or otherwise from the Orders. Despite the tens of thousands of DCCOs killed, the EA presents no data showing a widespread increase in fish populations on the scale of the suppression of DCCOs," the complaint says.
Plaintiffs claim that many of the scientific opinions relied upon by the agency are outdated, or simply bad science. On the other hand, FWS ignored a study commissioned which suggests that the decline in the cormorant population may warrant reconsideration of the order.
In addition, the agency did not take into account different states' hunting policies, according to the complaint. For example, South Carolina sponsored a month-long hunting event that resulted in the deaths of over 11,000 cormorants, which alone "will increase the continental total for 2014 by a staggering 25 percent," according to the complaint. And Texas allows unlimited shooting of cormorants for anyone with a hunting permit.
PEER staff counsel Laura Dumais said in a press release, "Without sufficient scientific analysis of impacts and alternatives, the Service has simply Xeroxed forward stale and unproven policies." She added, "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," Dumais said. "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."
Plaintiffs asked the court to vacate the agency's decision to re-extend the order, and order FWS to conduct a proper environmental assessment, and analysis of the possible alternatives to killing the birds.They are represented by PEER in-house counsel Laura Dumais and Paula Dinerstein.
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