A federal court has ruled South Carolina must halt its public hunts of a bird considered by fishermen to be a pest.
The judge in Columbia ruled that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) did not use current information when it authorized a public hunt of federally-protected double-breasted cormorants that killed about 26,000 birds the last two years. The ruling states FWS must show the need for the hunts before they can resume.
Cormorants are large seabirds that nest in South Carolina’s coastal plains lakes during the winter. The birds are sometimes considered pests due to the amount of fish they eat, but are normally protected as migratory non-game birds under federal law.
“This step that South Carolina has taken in these past years has raised just huge concerns,” said Laura Dumais of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which filed the lawsuit in 2014. “26,000 is a huge increase, considering that the yearly averages for the entire country were about 43,000.”
The issue stems from a Fish & Wildlife decision to allow “lethal removal” of the cormorants under a series of depredation orders. While most of the 24 affected states only allowed wildlife officers or American Indians to hunt the birds, South Carolina became the first to allow public hunting for one month each year. About 11,000 birds were killed in the program’s first year 2013 and 15,000 the next. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has not yet finished tallying the totals for the past year’s hunt.
The judge ruled that the Fish & Wildlife Service improperly relied on older data when it extended the program for another five years in 2014. The ruling effectively halts cormorant hunting until FWS can conduct new studies of the bird’s population and impact, according to Dumais. A FWS spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing the decision.
State Rep. Phillip Lowe, a Florence Republican who pushed for the public hunt, said it was done in response to complaints from anglers that the cormorant population is growing too rapidly and is devouring large numbers of fish in popular recreational lakes. “When I grew up… you might go out and see 20 or 30 of these,” he told South Carolina Radio Network at the time. “You can go out now and see 4,000 or 5,000 of them working in areas. Their population is way out of control.”
Lowe was not available for an interview when SCRN called his office Friday.
PEER’s lawsuit argued FWS officials had relied too much on public testimony and did not do its own research to back up anglers’ claims. “They’re hearing complaints from people that think (the birds) are causing problems with the fish, but it hasn’t been shown scientifically,” Dumais said.
Meanwhile, South Carolina’s DNR wants their federal counterparts to manage the birds as a single population and better coordinate cormorant removal efforts where it is needed, according to the Charleston Post & Courier.