A Senseless Slaughter Continues: Cormorants in the Crosshairs Again

by Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director 

Double-crested Cormorants have long been one of the most persecuted species in North America. Sadly, the agency charged with protecting them, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), has bowed time and time again to interests that want to kill cormorants for doing what they need to do to survive: eating fish. This summer, USFWS brought forward a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for a new plan to kill cormorants that even by past standards is stunning in its depravity and its utter indifference to maintaining stable cormorant populations.

Double-crested Cormorant in breeding plumage swims in the water. Bird seen from profile.
Double-crested Cormorant, photo by Mick Thompson

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to allow the annual killing of up to 123,157 cormorants across the United States. This represents between 12% and 15% of the entire cormorant population in the United States. The Service proposes to allow up to 8,881 of these killings to occur west of the Rocky Mountains, where populations are an order of magnitude smaller than in the central and eastern United States. This number represents a stunning 15%-28% of the entire western population…every year. In the past, the Service has required that lethal control of cormorants be tied to a documented conflict such as damage to property or predation at fish farms, fish hatcheries, or federally listed imperiled species, but the Service now proposes to allow killing of Double-crested Cormorants for having an impact on any wild or publicly stocked free-swimming fish population. 

At the same time that the Service is proposing a huge expansion of the slaughter of cormorants, it is also proposing to dramatically reduce its own oversight responsibilities. Rather than reviewing lethal-control permits on a case-by-case basis, the Service is proposing to issue broad “special permits” to states and to tribes, allowing these entities to kill cormorants. The DEIS includes a vague assurance that the Service will set up a plan to monitor cormorants but does not include any specifics, partners, costs or adaptive management strategies. The Service also states that it only intends to review the impacts of the new management strategy on a five-year basis. If the full allotment of cormorants is taken each year in the western U.S., the Service could potentially allow killing between 75% and 140% of the current population in the western U.S. before it even bothers to review the impacts.

The plan is also a catalogue of horrors from an animal welfare perspective. The Service proposes to allow the killing of cormorants in active nesting colonies, creating the risk of colony failure; killing adult cormorants during nesting season, leaving nestlings to starve in the nest; killing using lead ammunition, causing secondary deaths in cormorant predators such as bald eagles; and allowing lethal control techniques such as cervical dislocation in which a live bird is manually stretched and then twisted so that its skull is separated from its vertebrae. 

This new cormorant-killing plan arrives four years after the Federal Court in the District of Columbia vacated another Double-crested Cormorant killing program for cormorants east of the Rocky Mountains. In that case the court found that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to consider non-lethal alternatives, failed to adequately address how killing cormorants benefited fish, and failed to adequately consider the environmental consequences of its actions. Unfortunately, upwards of 180,000 cormorants were killed before the program was terminated.

This new plan also arrives three years after the Service issued permits to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to kill nearly 11,000 cormorants and destroy more than 26,000 cormorant nests at East Sand Island at the mouth of the Columbia River. At the time, this colony was the largest nesting colony of Double-crested cormorants in the world and represented 40% of the entire western population. Despite a federal court ruling based on a lawsuit brought by Bird Alliance of Oregon that the Service violated federal law by failing to consider a range of alternatives, the killing was allowed to proceed. That lethal control action ultimately contributed to the complete collapse of the entire colony in 2017, when several days after the onset of shooting and nest destruction, 17,000 cormorants abandoned their nests in a single day. The East Sand Island colony has never recovered and the implications of its collapse are nowhere near being fully understood. However, it appears that the western population is declining precipitously. The 2019 Western Population Status Evaluation showed a 23% drop in western populations between 2018 and 2019. 

Double-crested Cormorants on East Sand Island

The decision to issue permits to kill cormorants at East Sand Island is particularly disturbing because the Service’s own fish biologists warned the Service that their models showed that killing cormorants at East Sand Island would not provide benefits for salmon recovery. The Service justified ignoring its own scientists, allowing the reckless killing of thousands of cormorants on the basis that the report was not peer reviewed at the time. That report by Steve Haeseker et al. was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Wildlife Management in 2020: its conclusions remained the same. 

Double-crested Cormorants have survived catastrophic impacts from overhunting in the 19th century and contaminants in the 20th century. Over the past decade, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has permitted reckless, wanton and illegal killing of cormorants in both the eastern and western U.S. The current proposal takes the depravity to new levels and will put Double-crested Cormorant populations at extreme and unnecessary risk. It is expected that the USFWS will release a final plan in the fall of 2020. 

Bird Alliance of Oregon and a number of conservation and animal welfare organizations have submitted extensive comments critiquing the DEIS. Thank you to everybody who wrote in to express their opposition. We will be closely monitoring this situation and will continue to oppose this plan with all the tools at our disposal. We call on the US Fish and Wildlife Service to live up to its mission to protect the wildlife of the United States and adopt the no-action alternative. It is time for this senseless slaughter to stop.