Sustainability Environment

Trump administration proposes rollbacks in protections for migratory birds

migratory bird treaty act law rollback us department of the interior oil gas rule regulations lenient defenders of wildlife
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Story at a glance

  • The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) was passed by Congress to protect endangered bird species from industrial activities.
  • The Trump administration announced rollbacks on the language, saying that companies will not be prosecuted if they “unknowingly” injured a bird or its habitat.
  • This comes as America’s bird population has reduced by approximately a million birds since 1970.

The Trump administration is reportedly working to clarify the rollbacks implemented in the Migratory Bird Act in late December, according to an official press release.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), passed in 1918, outlawed the “taking, possessing, importing, exporting, transporting, selling, purchasing or bartering” any migratory bird, as well as parts, eggs and nests of such protected birds unless granted a federal permit, per the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The MBTA also issued oversight and accountability for companies whose operations may harm or endanger protected bird species. 

Under the Trump administration’s proposed rule, the rules protecting migratory birds now “only extends to conduct intentionally injuring birds” per the statement that has been released. Companies that injure or kill formerly protected birds unintentionally would now not be liable for any penalty. This includes such activities as energy production and generation, from waste pits to towers to oil spills and wind turbines.

Speaking with the Washington Post, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Aurelia Skipwith said that the clarification on the MBTA rules will help private industries “operate without the fear and uncertainty that the unintentional consequences of their actions may be prosecutedwhen birds are killed due to their actions, provided those actions are deemed unintended. 

Rob Wallace, the assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will “continue to work collaboratively with states, cities, conservation groups, industries, trade associations and citizens to ensure that best practices are followed to minimize unintended harm to birds and their habitats.”

The press release included testimonials from various public officials in praise of the decision. The president of the Western Energy Alliance, Kathleen Sgamma, for instance, is happy with the new language. 

Congress did not intend for criminal prosecution under the MBTA for accidental bird deaths, and three federal circuit courts have ruled as such,” Sgamma explained. “The proposed rule codifies the court rulings, and reverses years of executive branch overreach.”   

Advocacy groups see the more lax regulations as detrimental to bird populations in the U.S.

As the country already suffers from a “bird apocalypse” — with approximately 3 billion killed since 1970 — groups like Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit organization, have sued the Department of the Interior to reject the new interpretation of the bill. 

Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark issued a statement calling the Trump administration’s decision to “weaken” the MBTA “reckless and illegal,” alleging that the nation’s migratory birds are now left unprotected from invasive industry activity. 

“Whether they are in our backyards or the most remote wilderness, birds connect us to nature. Instead of attacking our nation’s bedrock wildlife conservation laws, the Trump administration should be reaffirming and strengthening the nation’s commitment to protecting birds,” Clark elaborated. 

The Department of the Interior stated that the 45-day public comment period on the bill will last from Feb. 3, 2020 to March 19, 2020.