Five conservation and animal welfare organizations including Friends of Animals initiated a lawsuit April 20 against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and USDA Wildlife Services to stop the slaughter of thousands of double-crested cormorants in the Columbia River basin. According to the lawsuit, the agencies are scapegoating the native birds for salmon declines while ignoring the real threat to salmon—mismanagement of the federal hydropower system. Unless stopped, the agencies will kill more than 15 percent of the entire population of double-crested cormorants west of the Rocky Mountains.

The plaintiffs on this lawsuit are: Audubon Society of Portland, Center for Biological Diversity, Wildlife Center of the North Coast, Animal Legal Defense Fund, and Friends of Animals. Plaintiffs are represented by Dan Rohlf and Earthrise Law Center. The plaintiffs will seek an injunction to stop the killing while the case proceeds through the court system. 

The federal agencies are set to kill more than 10,000 double-crested cormorants using shotguns as the birds forage for food over water. Snipers with night vision goggles and high-powered rifles will also shoot birds from elevated platforms as the birds care for their eggs and young on their nesting grounds at East Sand Island in the Columbia River. The agencies also plan to destroy more than 26,000 double-crested cormorant nests through oiling of eggs, egg failure and starvation of nestlings whose parents have been shot. 

“This is not about birds versus fish,” said Bob Sallinger, Audubon Society of Portland conservation director. “The Corps and other federal agencies have proposed rolling back dam operations that benefit salmon while at the same time targeting thousands of cormorants. Blaming salmon and steelhead declines on wild birds that have coexisted with salmon since time immemorial is nothing more than a diversion.” 

The lawsuit identifies several ways in which the Corps and Fish and Wildlife Service violated federal laws in their decision to move forward with the cormorant slaughter, including by refusing to analyze alternative dam operations to benefit salmon as required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In addition, the agencies failed to utilize available non-lethal methods of cormorant control, such as habitat modification on East Sand Island.

“The Corps has lost four lawsuits in federal court over the past decade due to its failure to address the impacts of dams on salmon,” said Stephen Wells, ALDF executive director. “Rather than addressing this ongoing violation of federal law, the Corps is now trying to blame wild birds who co-existed with healthy salmon runs for millennia before the Corps of Engineers came on the scene.”

It is particularly troubling that the Corps and the Service both admit that this slaughter will drive cormorant populations below sustainable levels. The agencies define a “sustainable” cormorant population as one that is “able to maintain a longterm trend with numbers above a level that would not result in a major decline or cause a species to be threatened or endangered.”

“It is unprecedented that federal agencies would deliberately drive a native species below levels defined as sustainable,” said Michael Harris, Friends of Animals’ Wildlife Law Program director. “We expect the federal government to protect native wildlife, not intentionally cause major declines.”

“The agencies need to stop scapegoating these native birds,” said Collette Adkins, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Corps’ refusal to modify dam operations is the real threat to salmon, and the deaths of thousands of cormorants will be another casualty of the agency’s mismanagement of the Columbia River ecosystem.”

“The saddest part about this action is that it will do little or nothing to protect salmon,” said Sharnelle Fee, director of the Wildlife Center of the North Coast.  “The science supporting this lethal control action is remarkably weak and this action is virtually meaningless from a salmon recovery perspective.”

Cormorants eat a very small portion of migrating salmon and also eat their predators, so the killing will have little benefit for salmon. But the killing will have a significant impact on the cormorant population. According to scientific experts, cormorant populations are under tremendous pressure throughout the Western United States from natural hazards such as drought and climate change. They are also under pressure from deliberate hazing, harassment and lethal control by humans. Western cormorant populations are currently less than 10 percent of their historic levels.