COLUMBIA, SC A government program allowing hunters to kill a species of bird blamed for eating too many fish sustained a setback in federal court Tuesday after a legal fight between wildlife conservationists and government agencies.
U.S. District Judge John D. Bates said federal authorities failed to consider “a reasonable range of alternatives’’ to killing double-crested cormorants, which anglers say are depleting fish populations in many states, including South Carolina.
The 17-page ruling said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also failed to properly study whether to continue authorizing programs to kill cormorants.
Although the decision stopped short of halting the programs, it orders those involved in the legal fight to come up with a plan to address the cormorant issue.
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That offered hope to critics who say there is sketchy evidence that shooting cormorants helps protect fish populations. Many want the government to stop sanctioning cormorant extermination efforts.
“It’s definitely a positive development,” said Ben Gregg, director of the S.C. Wildlife Federation. “It tells you that the Fish and Wildlife Service and our state Department of Natural Resources need to make decisions based on science – not on politics and anecdotal evidence.”
South Carolina has had one of the most aggressive cormorant killing programs in the country. In 2014 and 2015, hunters with government approval shot and killed about 25,000 cormorants, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Gregg and retired Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Steve Gilbert said the cormorant killings have been sanctioned without proper studies. Gilbert said declines in some fish populations, for instance, could be attributable to lower oxygen levels caused by increased plant growth in lakes Marion and Moultrie.
“Cormorants are just the latest scapegoat,” Gilbert said. “There is no data to show how they are really harming the fishery in the lakes.”
Double-crested cormorants are dark, fish-eating birds that are native to South Carolina, according to the Audubon Society. They are large birds with long necks and wing spans of more than two feet.
An organization of federal environmental resource employees brought suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service in an attempt to curtail the killing programs authorized by the agency. Under the law, state agencies can approve efforts to kill cormorants after receiving federal approval.
Nationally, critics say as many as 160,000 double-crested cormorants can be killed each year under the Fish and Wildlife authorization.
States such as Texas and South Carolina have taken advantage of federal authorizations to allow unlimited cormorant hunting by any licensed hunter, critics of the program say.
Officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service were unavailable Tuesday night, but a S.C. Department of Natural Resources official said his agency has been following the approvals given by the federal agency.
“We will look into this and confer with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Derrell Shipes, the DNR’s chief of statewide programs. “It sounds like the Fish and Wildlife Service is going to have to review this ruling and decide what it means for them in terms of the extension” of the program.