Trump Administration Clips the Wings of Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Gutting Bird Protections

The Fish and Wildlife Service last week proposed another major rollback of an environmental rule and put millions of birds in danger — this one protecting migratory birds under an international treaty that has been in effect for a century.  The Interior Department’s top lawyer previously said that they would no longer prosecute violations of the law implementing the treaty by developers and industry whose actions accidental actions result in harm or death to migratory birds, and this week the agency proposed a formal rule to that effect.

Why This Matters:  Prosecutions of this treaty are hardly a huge threat, but the decision to waive all prosecutions will have broad implications and impact behavior of those who should be taking care that their actions do not cause more harm to birds than the myriad of threats such as plastic pollution and climate change.  The NY Times documented one such case in which a large infrastructure project in Virginia would have harmed nesting habitat but once the rules were made “voluntary” because there would be no prosecution, the state of Virginia nixed the mitigation they were planning to do as a result of the project. This action, in one fell swoop, guts the protections the U.S. is supposed to provide under this bedrock environmental treaty – it is arguably illegal.  And in doing so we hurt not only ourselves and the birds who migrate between nations, but also the other countries where the birds spend time.  It is exactly the opposite of what we need to be doing to avoid another major extinction event (we should be conserving 30% of the planet by 2030 to protect bird habitat), as we know birds are more at risk than ever.

What Does The Migratory Bird Treaty Act Do?

Ratified in 1918,  the treaty and its implementing law has made it illegal to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, [or] kill…in any manner, any migratory bird” without permission.  Since about 1970, according to National Geographic, the focus on the law has shifted from hunters to “oil, gas, timber, mining, chemical, and electrical companies whose industrial activities were killing birds accidentally” because they are now the bigger threat.  Each year “between eight million and 57.3 million birds die colliding with electrical lines, and between 500,000 and a million birds die from swooping into oil pits, which they mistake for ponds, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.”  Now, most businesses will just nevermind the birds — why pay to mitigate bird deaths or injuries when there is no penalty for doing so.  The agency issued a press release last week explaining its proposal and said: “it is important to bring regulatory certainty to the public” and that the service will “continue to work collaboratively…to ensure that best practices are followed to minimize unintended harm to birds and their habitats.”

What You Can Do:  To help birds in your back yard, check out this story from yesterday’s edition of ODP.  And you can file a comment until March opposing the proposed rule by clicking here and follow the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. FWS-HQ-MB-2018-0090.

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