The United States Army Corps of Engineers recently announced that, with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, it has killed 109 double-crested cormorants on East Sand Island, a 50-acre stretch of land found at the mouth of the Columbia River near the Washington-Oregon border. The shootings mark the beginning of a three-year plan to reduce the island’s cormorant population from approximately 13,600 breeding pairs to no more than 6,000 pairs. The Army Corps says the migratory birds must die because they present a risk to salmon and steelhead trout. Cormorants consume 11 million young fish each year as they are released from human-managed hatcheries and head toward the sea.
The cull, like most culls, has drawn nearly universal ire from those who have been paying attention. More than 98 percent of 150,000 public commenters opposed the plan, and five environmental groups sued to block the killing. There is, however, an interesting divergence within the opposition—one that raises questions about our country’s ability to intelligently discuss the ethics of wildlife management.
The conservation groups base their opposition almost entirely on technical issues. They argue that the system of hydroelectric dams along the Columbia River, operated by the Army Corps, bears virtually all the responsibility for the loss of salmon, because the dams disrupt the fish’s natural migration patterns. Killing a bunch of predatory birds, the groups continue, is a distraction from the dams rather than a solution to the salmon’s bigger problem. The intrinsic value of the cormorants is, at best, a side issue in these arguments.
“When you make said fish freely available to us by raising great numbers of them all in one place and sending them downstream, we simply can’t help helping ourselves.”
In contrast, ordinary citizens who submitted comments on the proposed plan more often based their appeals on ethics, morality, or affection for migratory birds. The author of a book on cormorants lamented to the Army Corps of our “loss of the sense that cormorants are amazing.” One person urged the government to consult a panel of ethicists and accused the Army Corps of “irrational hatred of this bird.” Another argued that the cormorants have a “right to life” and referred to the plan as the “murder of wildlife.”
My favorite commenter wrote in the first person as a cormorant. She apologizes for eating the salmon but points out, “When you make said fish freely available to us by raising great numbers of them all in one place and sending them downstream, we simply can’t help helping ourselves.” Much of the letter is devoted to gently ribbing the Army Corps for failing to slow the cormorants’ population growth through means other than shooting, along with this gem:
True, we sometimes drive out animals more couth than ourselves. We poop so much that trees sometimes die. But it is natural for us to travel in large groups and make ourselves at home as we see fit. This is a behavior with which you, as part of the U.S. Army, are familiar, I think? But I’m just speculating here.
Who knew cormorants had such a wicked sense of humor?
The Army Corps responded to the public comments in March, and their absolute disregard of the ethical and sentimental arguments illustrates why professional conservation groups never bothered to raise them. It said it would only address comments that “raised substantive issues and warranted additional discussion.” Apparently, that doesn’t include moral arguments.
This is a sad indictment of our capacity for public deliberation. The ethics of culling is a lively area of ethical and philosophical debate, and it has been joined in other countries. South Africa’s elephant cull is the most obvious example. After a 13-year hiatus, the country re-instituted the practice of killing wild elephants in 2008 to ensure that there were enough resources in national parks to sustain the remaining population.
Morality played a central role in the debate leading up to that decision. The International Fund for Animal Welfare made ethics the foundation of its anti-culling literature, arguing that the practice is "cruel” and “unethical." In its discussion of the issue, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature pointed out the complication of whose ethics to apply—those of South African farmers, Western conservationists, animal-rights activists?. The South African government, to its credit, responded. Kruger National Park formed an ethics committee to decide when a cull should occur. The government then decided that culling would serve only as a last resort, after sterilization, re-location, and park expansion had failed to protect the ecosystem. South Africa’s culling policy is still imperfect, but at least the morality of its actions has been fully debated and considered.
To see what happens when the ethics are ignored, look across the pond. The United Kingdom began culling badgers in 2013 because they spread tuberculosis between cattle. Critics howled that the process was inhumane. The head of a government science advisory committee complained not only of the lack of scientific evidence to support the cull but also worried that the animals’ lives would be lost “for little purpose.” The government continued with the killing, largely undeterred. Eighteen months on, the cull is widely viewed as a disaster. Government shooters have been ineffective at reducing the population, and some badgers are known to have suffered long and painful deaths. Even a veterinary organization that supports the cull says that the shooting of badgers is cruel and methods must improve.
Government hunters have their own embarrassing history here in the U.S. The Wildlife Services agency, which is assisting the Army Corps with the cormorant cull, is widely reviled. The agency’s shooters have accidentally killed thousands of bald eagles, endangered wolverines, and family dogs, mostly in a misguided attempt to protect livestock. They shoot first and ask questions later (if ever).
“It’s blatant killing,” says a former Wildlife Services employee in the film Wild Things, a Natural Resources Defense Council documentary. “There’s a coyote, let’s kill it. Let’s kill it, let’s kill it.”
This is not an argument against all culling. It’s not even, necessarily, an argument against the cormorant cull. But, if the government is going to send hunters out to kill thousands and thousands of birds—especially when our own mismanagement of salmon habitat caused the alleged ecological imbalance—we ought to have a grown-up discussion about the ethics of the cull and how humanely it’s carried out. If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Wildlife Services can’t engage in that debate, they shouldn’t be carrying guns.