Federal Court Allows Army Corps of Engineers to Continue Slaughter of 10,000 Aquatic Birds to Protect Salmon

Sunday, September 04, 2016
Meal time for a cormorant (photo: Getty Images)

By Karina Brown, Courthouse News Service


PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — A federal judge will allow the Army Corps of Engineers to keep shooting native cormorants by the thousands, to reduce predation on young salmon, despite objections from environmentalists who say the slaughter doesn't address the real cause of dwindling salmon populations: hydroelectric dams.


The Audubon Society of Portland led an April 2015 lawsuit (pdf) against the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, claiming that the plan scapegoated a natural predator and had little effect on survival rates of young salmon.


Chief among the Audubon Society's arguments is that there are so many factors that determine whether a salmon will return from sea to spawn in its native waters that the government's focus on cormorant predation was not only fruitless, but hurt a native bird protected by the Migratory Species Act.


The government's plan focused on East Sand Island, home to the largest breeding population of double-crested cormorants in North America. The 60-acre island is nestled in the fertile brackish waters where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean.


Since May 2015, the government has shot 4,740 double-crested cormorants on or near East Sand Island and poured vegetable oil on 6,181 nests to suffocate the eggs.


U.S. District Judge Michael Simon on Wednesday found that the government violated the National Environmental Policy Act by moving ahead with its plan without considering other ways to increase salmon survival rates. But he declined to stop the government from killing nearly two-thirds of the double-crested cormorants on East Sand Island.


Audubon claimed that the Corps of Engineers knew its plan would have little effect on salmon survival. But Simon found that the Corps of Engineers considered that, and the National Environmental Policy Act "requires only that agencies make informed, not necessarily wise, decisions, and that the public also be informed."


Scientists disagree on the benefits of the plan, Simon acknowledged. But because cormorants eat salmon, killing the birds will result in some increase in the survival of endangered salmon. Cormorants are not endangered, so salmon are the priority, the judge ruled.


"Although there is doubt about how much benefit to salmonid survival reducing the cormorant population will provide, the scientific evidence shows that it will provide some benefit to the productivity of salmonids currently listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act," Simon wrote. "In considering effects on endangered and threatened species, the 'benefit of the doubt' must go to the endangered species."


Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, said in an interview that the organization was "very disappointed."


"The judge found that the federal government did break the law," Sallinger said. "But he basically said, 'We don't really know what the benefits are, but in the event that there are benefits, we're going to go ahead and let them kill all these birds, just in case.'"


Amy Echols, spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers, declined to comment.


"We're still looking through it and thinking about what it means," Echols said Thursday.


Double-crested cormorants are not endangered, but in May, one month after the government began its second year of shooting adult cormorants and oiling their nests, the entire colony of birds disappeared en masse from East Sand Island.


Eagles, crows and gulls quickly descended to gobble up the abandoned eggs.


The government says it doesn't know why the birds abandoned the island, but the Audubon says it warned the Corps of Engineers in 2015 that its actions could have just such an effect.


Double-crested cormorants are all-black birds 28 to 35 inches high, save for bare orange face patches and black and white crests during breeding season. They swim and dive for fish, and because their feathers are not waterproof they must dry them out after diving, by standing on land with their wings spread.


Sallinger said the goal of the government's focus on cormorants is to divert attention from the real problem facing salmon: the more than 60 hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin.


Environmentalists have been protesting hydroelectric dams for at least a generation, since Marc Reisner's 1986 book "Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water" raised numerous issues: among them the role of political influence, who benefits and how, and the inevitable need for dredging, at enormous expense, which has not been factored into budgets.


Reisner's 1991 book, "Game Wars: The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers," was also highly regarded. It followed a Fish and Wildlife agent for years as he busted criminals who kill and smuggle protected wildlife: rather ironic today, now that Fish and Wildlife and the Corps of Engineers managed to extinguish the largest breeding colony of cormorants in North America.


"The judge talked about how this plan has wasted billions of dollars without addressing the primary cause of decline, which is the dams," Sallinger said. "But then he said, 'Go ahead, waste taxpayer dollars, waste these birds' lives, potentially create another imperiled species that would cost even more taxpayer dollars to recover.' All of that without even addressing the real issue.


"Are we going to watch salmon go extinct while the government thumbs its nose at the law? And how many other species will be scapegoated? What's next on the government's hit list as a way to avoid the primary issue?"


To Learn More:

Dam Destruction Agreement Will Allow Endangered Salmon to Finally Swim Home (by Jonathon J. Cooper, Associated Press)

PG&E Killed a Tenth of Threatened Salmon for Repair Work (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Federal Program Allows Killing of Half a Million Protected Migratory Birds a Year (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)


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