The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a proposed rule and draft environmental impact statement establishing a new permit system allowing some states and tribes to kill double-crested cormorants to prevent the large migratory birds from eating so many juvenile fish.

Cormorants are fish-eating birds protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The proposal notes that the abundance of cormorants, which are native across the continental United States, has increased dramatically since the 1960s and '70s, resulting in damaged crops and losses of both hatchery and wild fish.

To help control growing bird populations—which increased to between 872,000 and 983,000 birds across the U.S. and Canada—the agency began a public scoping process earlier this year to establish new regulations to expand options for the lethal take of double-crested cormorants, and on June 5 issued the new proposed rule.

Currently, the agency issues lethal take permits and allows commercial freshwater aquaculture producers in 13 states to take cormorants without a permit when they were found to consume aquaculture stocks.

In the Columbia River Estuary, lethal control of cormorants has been allowed on a case-by-case basis, primarily to reduce losses of federally threatened or endangered juvenile salmon and steelhead.

FWS is proposing to use a method called Potential Take Level to determine the number of cormorants that may be taken in four separate regions of the U.S. while maintaining the species at sustainable levels.

Under the proposal, the agency would allow states and tribes to kill up to 20 percent of the population annually to help reduce conflicts with both wild and publicly stocked fisheries on state or tribal lands. About 123,157 birds could be killed each year, including 8,881 in the Western region, leaving a total population of about 815,000 birds across North America, a summary of the proposal states. The new special permit would be available in addition to existing measures used to address conflicts with cormorants.

"This proposed rule would bring all populations of double-crested cormorants under a common assessment framework to determine allowable levels of take. However, levels of take for each population could differ based on their current abundances, population biology, and population-specific management objectives," a summary of the proposal states.

Comments on the proposal must be submitted by July 20.

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K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.