Animal Law Update

Federal Judge Rules Mass Killing of Oregon Cormorants Can Continue

By Nicole Pallotta, Academic Outreach Manager

Despite ruling that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acted unlawfully by failing to consider alternatives to killing thousands of cormorants on Oregon’s Columbia River, a federal district court has allowed the slaughter to continue.

The government’s justification for carrying out the mass shooting of cormorants and oiling of nests on East Sand Island, located at the mouth of the Columbia River and home to the largest nesting double-crested cormorant colony in North America, is that the birds are preying on federally protected juvenile salmon and steelhead (collectively known as salmonids) as they migrate to the ocean.

However, environmental experts argue that hydroelectric dams are the real cause of the decline in salmonid populations in the Columbia Basin, and that predator eradication is not the answer. Advocates for the birds charge that they are being used as scapegoats, in part because criticizing dams is politically unpopular, and that the science – according the government’s own documents – does not support the mass killing.

Last year, the Audubon Society of Portland, joined by other groups including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, challenged the federal government’s actions in creating, permitting, and carrying out the lethal management plan, along with its preparation of the final Environmental Impact Statement, as violations of federal law. Although U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon ruled that federal agencies did break the law in failing to consider alternatives, and that there was doubt about how many salmonids were in fact saved by the mass slaughter of the wild birds, he left the lethal plan in place, deciding the science shows there is some benefit to the listed fish. Because they are not a federally protected species, the interests of the cormorants were given less weight, with the judge writing that endangered or threatened species “must be given the benefit of the doubt.”

The court’s ruling allows the continued slaughter of thousands of cormorants. Since the management plan went into effect in 2015, more than 7,000 adult cormorants have been shot and killed, and 6,000 nests have been oiled and destroyed. The groups that brought the lawsuit are considering their options, and hope the federal agencies will reconsider their plan to kill the wild birds given the benefits of this drastic action are uncertain at best.

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