By Shelby Sebens
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - The U.S. federal government has killed more than 1,000 seabirds on an Oregon island since May to protect endangered salmon as part of a plan that environmentalists say is flawed and are seeking to stop with a lawsuit.
So far, 1,221 adult cormorants have been killed and more than 5,000 nests destroyed, U.S. officials said on Friday, adding the killing was expected to continue until mid- to late October when the seabirds migrate for the winter.
"Government agents are racing about in their boat blowing birds out of the sky," said Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland. "The public has a right to see how the federal government is squandering millions of taxpayer dollars killing protected wild birds."
The government workers started culling the birds on May 24 as part of a multi-year plan to kill 11,000 double-crested cormorants, which U.S. wildlife officials say are putting endangered salmon at risk by eating juvenile fish.
Some species of salmon and steelhead trout are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
"If we don't do (the culling) ... we are in danger of violating the Endangered Species Act," said Diana Fredlund, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers Portland District.
"We would prefer not to have to kill the birds but this is based on the science and the research that we've been doing for years," Fredlund said.
Conservationists, led by Audubon in Portland, disagree. They argue the federal government is ignoring the real threat to salmon: management of hydroelectric dams.
They also say the government failed to use non-lethal methods of cormorant control on East Sand Island in the Columbia River, and say killing the birds will do little to save salmon.
Audubon and other conservation and animal welfare groups filed a lawsuit last month seeking to stop the killing and demanded an investigation into a recently released U.S. Fish and Wildlife report that showed killing the birds would not save the threatened fish.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Miel Corbett said the report is a draft that has not been through an internal review.
(Reporting by Shelby Sebens in Portland, Oregon; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Sandra Maler)