By Courtney Sherwood
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Conservationists demanded an investigation on Wednesday after newly released documents suggested the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a plan to cull 11,000 double-crested cormorants despite knowing it would not save threatened fish populations.
Five conservation and animal welfare groups filed a lawsuit in April to try to stop the killing of the native cormorants, which live on East Sand Island near the mouth of the Columbia River Basin in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
The conservation groups say a Fish and Wildlife report from 2014 that was released under court order last week concluded salmon and steelhead eaten by the birds would be eaten by other fish and other predators if the cormorants were not there.
Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, said that showed the federal agency was making policy decisions that contradicted its own research.
"We believe this goes beyond simply killing cormorants. This is about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their scientific integrity," Sallinger said.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman said she could not comment on the report because of the pending litigation.
The government's plan to kill the birds came after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released an opinion last year calling for a decrease in the bird population to under 6,000 breeding pairs by 2018 from about 13,000 now.
Federal officials say the birds are eating the juvenile salmon and putting the fish population at risk. Many juvenile salmon and steelhead trout are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Named in the conservation groups' lawsuit in April were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The lawsuit argues that the federal government failed to use non-lethal methods of cormorant control, and that it is ignoring what the groups say is the real threat to salmon and steelhead numbers: hydroelectric dams.
The conservation groups say the federal agencies have killed 180 adult cormorants and destroyed thousands of nests on East Sand Island so far this year.
"The Service ignored its own science," Collette Adkins, attorney and biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement on Wednesday.
"The agency's own analysis makes clear that its cormorant-killing program is doing nothing to help endangered fish. ... The killing needs to stop now."
(Reporting by Courtney Sherwood; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)