The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted improperly when it allowed tens of thousands of migratory aquatic birds to be shot each year to protect farmed and sport fish populations, a federal judge has ruled.
The agency said it lacked resources for a "hard look" at either the long-range environmental effects of or possible alternatives to its decisions about double-crested cormorants, and that just isn't a good reason, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates wrote.
Letting that stand could gut the National Environmental Protection Act, "since many an agency would frequently so argue," wrote Bates, a federal judge in Washington.
He ruled Tuesday on a pair of orders that opponents say let people kill up to 160,000 double-crested cormorants each year to protect sport fish in 24 states east of the Mississippi River and farmed fish in 13 of those states.
"The Service is reviewing and studying the decision," Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Laury Parramore said in an email Wednesday.
The advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued the government to stop the practice, which is known as "lethal removal."
Fish and Wildlife has allowed fish farmers to kill cormorants that were eating or about to eat fish in their ponds since 1998. Five years later, it said Indian tribes and state and federal wildlife agents could kill those eating or about to eat "public resources of fish." Those orders have been renewed every five years.
The fish farm order covers Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. The other one applies to those states plus Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
The renewal extending their effect from 2014 to 2019 didn't even "bother to update" population estimates, but copied estimates from 2009 about the likely populations in 2014, Bates wrote.
The advocacy group's attorney, Laura Dumais, said in a statement Wednesday, "The service can no longer Xerox forward stale and unsupported practices simply because it will not take the time to consider alternatives."
Newsman Michael Biesecker contributed to this report from Washington. McConnaughey reported from New Orleans.