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Targeted for death, fish-eating birds gain reprieve from federal court

Cormorants are fish-eating birds that have been targeted for death in South Carolina
Cormorants are fish-eating birds that have been targeted for death in South Carolina

The double-crested cormorant – a type of bird hated by many South Carolina fishermen – gained an ally this week that could protect the species from federally sanctioned hunting efforts in the Palmetto State.

On Wednesday, a U.S. court in Washington suspended two federal orders that have allowed South Carolina and other states to authorize the mass killing of cormorants.

The big birds are blamed for devouring so many fish that some say they are making it difficult for anglers at lakes Marion and Moultrie southeast of Columbia. In 2014 and 2015, South Carolina hunters killed 25,000 cormorants suspected of gobbling fish.

Wednesday’s court ruling does not have an immediate effect on South Carolina because cormorant hunts are over for the year. The program, which began two years ago, allows hunters to shoot cormorants for several weeks during the winter. Cormorants are otherwise protected by federal law.

But Robert McCullough, a spokesman with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said the court decision might spell the end of mass cormorant hunts in South Carolina.

“We’ve got time to reassess, and that is what we are looking at,’’ he said. “Today, we could not have a cormorant season’’ because of the ruling.

Double-crested cormorants are dark, fish-eating birds with wingspans of more than two feet. They are native to South Carolina.

Wednesday’s court decision was in response to a legal challenge by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an organization that represents federal natural resource agency workers.

The group argues in court documents that cormorants are not the threat to important fish that many people make them out to be. Cormorants, rather than eating up prized game fish, tend to eat more invasive species, the group says.

The court said Wednesday that suspending the federal killing orders won’t hurt the environment, but it will save cormorants until more study can be conducted. The court in March ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with a plan to address the issue.

“It goes without saying that if these orders are left in place, additional cormorants will be killed,’’ Judge John Bates wrote.

Laura Dumais, an attorney for the public employees organization, said her group is pleased with the court ruling. The issue centered on whether the program could go forward with what her group said were limited environmental studies. It’s possible the cormorant killing programs could be re-approved if studies justify them.

“We see this as extremely important,’’ she said. “States or tribes have been killing birds without scientific justification for doing so. We are very encouraged the court has ended this and required the science to be done.’’

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