States shouldn't enable Trump's cruel shift on migratory bird protection

States shouldn't enable Trump's cruel shift on migratory bird protection
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The destruction last month of Virginia’s largest seabird colony begs the question: Why did the Virginia Department of Transportation choose to cooperate with the Trump administration’s assault on sound environmental policy?

The VDOT’s paving over of crucial bird habitat on an island along the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel was enabled — but not excused — by a significant change in federal procedures. And unless state governments contest this change, what happened in Virginia will happen again and again to birds in state after state.

In 2017, the Trump administration suddenly ended a century of protection for migratory birds by crippling the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The changes, which the organization I work for and other conservationists are fighting in court, were a huge gift to developers looking to fast-track projects dangerous to birds. They’re also a boon to oil companies and other corporations that kill vast numbers of birds.

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Seemingly overnight, the destruction of bird nests during construction was classified as “incidental take” and no longer punishable by law. Conservation efforts that protected migratory birds for decades were rendered “purely voluntary.”

The results were all too predictable. Experts warned that without strong federal oversight, many developers would choose the cheapest and easiest way forward, even if that path caused hundreds of animals to die needlessly.

That’s exactly what’s happened across the country, as internal Trump administration documents obtained by our organization have revealed. 

Like the fuel pipeline leak that killed numerous waterfowl near Buhl, Idaho, but triggered no penalties for those responsible. Or the bald eagles, osprey, and great horned owls electrocuted on uninsulated power lines in North Dakota and Tennessee without any subsequent enforcement action.

But what happened with the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel project illustrates conservationists’ worst fears about these changes.

For three years, researchers worked with the VDOT to find a new home for the roughly 25,000 birds that have nested on a small island near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay since the 1980s. Many solutions were proposed and examined, including chaining together a series of barges for the birds to roost on.

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But beginning in 2018, after Trump and his officials weakened the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the VDOT became less and less responsive to pursuing responsible conservation measures in Hampton Roads. And in December, the VDOT paved over the island, at a time when the birds have flown south for the winter.

After all the time and energy spent pursuing alternatives, it was as if the birds never really mattered at all.

Like the Trump administration’s distorting of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the VDOT’s course of action in the Chesapeake Bay was cruel. Thousands of birds will return there again in the spring, expecting their usual nesting grounds — only to be met with an expanse of asphalt.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, once the federal agency responsible for ensuring that migratory birds were not harmed as part of development projects, will surely turn a blind eye here, as is the new norm across the nation.

This will no doubt result in population decline. The gull-billed tern is already listed as threatened in Virginia. And the paving of the small island means that the royal tern, which was recovering from a drastic decline due to egg harvest, just lost 98 percent of its breeding habitat in Virginia.

The harm to bird habitat in Hampton Roads and across the United States comes at a terrible time. North America has lost three billion birds since 1970 to habitat loss and other problems, according to a recent "Science" study. Coastal shorebirds, for instance, have lost about a third of their population.

But Virginia didn’t have to crush this habitat. Transportation officials should not be doing the dirty work of the anti-environment Trump administration. The birds nesting at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay deserved more than to be treated like a small annoyance in the way of a $3.8 billion project.

Individuals across the nation must press their elected officials at all levels to pursue policies that protect our precious wildlife. We certainly should not tolerate or accept our state agencies cooperating enthusiastically with the worst excesses of this destructive administration.

Catherine Kilduff is a Virginia-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.