A federal agency has quietly ended a program which allowed landowners to hunt a waterfowl common along South Carolina’s lakes, almost without limit.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday vacated its depredation orders for double-breasted cormorants. The move comes two years after a federal judge ruled the agency did not use current information when it authorized a public hunt of the federally-protected birds. South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources estimates 26,000 birds were killed in 2014 and 2015 before the hunt was halted.
“South Carolina, in essence, allowed anyone without a license to kill an unlimited number of birds,” said Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) director Jeff Rook, whose organization filed the lawsuit which ended the practice.
FWS had set the hunts amid complaints that the traditional seabirds were eating too much of the fish inland lakes, particularly in Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie. The agency issued a depredation order in response. While most states only allowed FWS hunters or Native American tribes to shoot the birds, others like South Carolina opened it up to the general public for one month each year, provided the birds were “committing or about to commit depredations on the public resources of fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats.”
But PEER and other organizations argued the agency had not studied how badly the birds were impacting the environment or how many would need to be killed. Cormorants and most other migratory birds are protected by an international agreement with Canada.
“You’re supposed to be protecting the cormorants,” Rook said. “But, if the state and federal agencies have no idea what’s going on out there… it becomes politics and not game management.”
FWS will still grant special depredation orders in the case of birds impacting “aquaculture” industries, such as catfish farms.