(CN) - The Fish and Wildlife Service didn't think through its choice to authorize killing aquatic birds that can be trained to fish for humans, a federal judge ruled.
The dispute stems from two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) orders that authorize the killing of double-crested cormorants in certain states.
Complaints that cormorants' fish-eating habits were increasingly costing aquaculture and other industries their stock led the agency to adopt the Aquaculture Depredation Order in 1998.
That authorized the commercial freshwater aquaculture industry to "take" - or, kill - any cormorant found "committing or about to commit depredations to aquaculture stocks," that is, eating commercially-raised fish, in certain states, according to court records.
In China, cormorants are trained to fish for humans, according to a BBC video.
But rather than use nonlethal techniques mentioned in its environmental impact statement in 2003, the agency issued the Public Resource Depredation Order, allowing state fish and wildlife agencies and federally recognized tribes to kill cormorants on any public land.
After renewing the orders every five years through 2009, the agency decided not to review potential revisions.
"Because of other priorities at headquarters, the resources aren't available at this time to complete a supplemental [environmental impact statement]," FWS employee Terry Doyle wrote in an internal email in 2013.
Such a statement is required by the National Environmental Policy Act for all "major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment," court records show.
The agency instead conducted in 2014 an "environmental assessment," which the Act requires for all cases where the proposed federal action would not significantly impact the environment.
Though the agency received more than 80 public comments that year on its plans to conduct an environmental impact statement, it ultimately chose to extend the orders for another five years without revising them.
That prompted Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which describes itself online as a nonprofit alliance of state and federal workers, and five members to sue the FWS and Director Daniel Ashe in D.C. Federal Court.
U.S. District Judge John Bates awarded the environmentalists summary judgment Tuesday.
"Rather than take a 'hard look' at the impacts on cormorant populations if the orders were extended through 2019, FWS simply lifted the findings from its 2009 [environmental assessment] regarding the expected impact of extending the orders through 2014," Bates wrote.
The judge found it "hard to imagine a 'softer' look."
"Indeed, it defies common sense simply to assume that the population of double-crested cormorants has remained unchanged since 2009 or that the predicted impact of extending the orders would be exactly the same in 2014 as it was in 2009, when five years of 'taking' have occurred in the interim," Bates wrote.
The agency's harmful errors prevented the court from finding whether an environmental impact statement was required in 2014, according to the ruling.
"FWS was aware that its current approach 'may not be ideal,'" Bates wrote. "Had it considered other reasonable approaches, it might have settled upon a different 'preferred alternative.'"
PEER members Ken Stromborg, Bill Koonz, James Ludwig, Mark Tweedale, and Dennis Wild are also named as plaintiffs.
PEER's Silver Spring, Md.-based attorney, Laura Dumais, said Tuesday's ruling "puts FWS - and really all federal agencies - on notice that budgetary woes don't excuse failure to comply with the law."
"We hope this case will be a step toward ending uninformed slaughter of predators as the go-to solution for perceived conflicts between people and wildlife," Dumais added.
U.S. Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle declined to comment on the ruling Thursday, but said the department is "reviewing the decision and considering next steps."
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