Act now to protect our nation’s birds


It’s tough to keep track of all of the rollbacks amid the flood of 100 plus environmental rules being reversed by the Trump administration. But one rollback that stands out is Trump’s neutering of the protections provided by the 102-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). Birds are not helpless, though; they’ve got 45 million American birdwatchers who can take action to stop this rollback. 

Right now we have two windows of opportunity to restore bird protections in the MBTA — solicitation of public comments (due July 20) on proposed changes to the MBTA, and introduction of the Migratory Bird Protection Act (H.R.5552) by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and 80 bipartisan cosponsors.  

Given the many crises we are facing as a nation, why should we worry about birds right now?  

The science is clear — we should be doing more, not less, to protect birds. Over one-third of North American bird species are in need of urgent conservation action and another half require serious attention. Since 1970 we’ve lost 3 billion birds — nearly one of every three — across almost all regions, habitats and groups of birds in North America. Grassland birds are down by 53 percent, shorebirds by 37 percent, boreal forest birds and aerial insectivores by 32 percent each and migratory birds by 28 percent. Steep declines are evident even among common birds, like Barn Swallow, Chimney Swift and Eastern Meadowlark.

The MBTA protects over 1,100 migratory bird species by making it illegal to harm birds except by permit or regulated hunting. Since enacted, MBTA has prohibited “incidental take,” or activities that directly and foreseeably — negligently rather than purposefully — harm birds. Yet despite declining bird populations, a 2017 legal opinion issued by the current administration excluded incidental take from the MBTA. The reinterpretation was heavily criticized, including by a bipartisan group of former Interior officials, for silencing the act on most sources of avian mortality and eliminating a proven incentive to implement best practices and standards known to reduce harm to birds.  

Birds face many threats, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates that of the billions killed annually, industry kills roughly one-quarter as a result of human activities. Causes of mortality include poisoning, oil spills, electrocution from power lines, oil pits and collisions with man made structures. This can impact common and declining species alike. For example, steep declines are reported among more than 80 of the 172 bird species reported to be killed in oil pits and 50 of the 350 species of Neotropical migratory songbirds are vulnerable to collisions with tall structures.  

The administration now seeks to codify the removal of incidental take — an action that the USFWS acknowledged in their draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is likely to exacerbate bird declines and negatively impact vulnerable species. Why? One key reason is that voluntary implementation of best practices and standards are expected to decline because industries would no longer be incentivized or fear prosecution.   

Incentivizing best practices has been widely regarded as one of the most important elements of the act. For example, in the 1970s the Nixon administration used the MBTA to convince power companies to reduce bird deaths by increasing the distance between power lines. More recently, the USFWS cooperated with over 50 electric utility companies in the U.S. and Canada to develop guidance documents to reduce avian electrocutions and collisions. Likewise, the Federal Aviation Administration required new blinking lights and marking standards to reduce the impact of tall communication towers on migratory birds. MBTA also provided strong leverage to prod the oil industry to cover oil pits with nets or employ alternative approaches to exclude birds and other wildlife. Other industries have implemented similarly proactive measures.  

Not only does removal of incidental take from MBTA fundamentally erode the protections our nation has granted to birds, but it dismisses commitments to our international treaty partners and diminishes the broader benefits that birds provide, such as pest control, seed dispersal, pollination services and recreation that injects billions of dollars each year into our economy. A weakened MBTA cannot be compensated by other environmental laws, like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which apply to only a fraction of species and situations. Those laws also are actively being challenged by the current administration.  

But there is hope. The Migratory Bird Protection Act (H.R. 5552) introduced in Congress would restore key protections to birds by prohibiting incidental take by commercial activities and establishing a permitting process that would provide regulatory certainty to operators and incentivize use of best practices. You can help by voicing your support to your representatives.

Weakening protections for birds undermines public benefits to return private profits and satisfy special interests. We can and should do better.  

Amanda D. Rodewald is the Garvin professor and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and faculty fellow at Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.  Views expressed in this column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

Tags Alan Lowenthal bipartisan Bird conservation Bird migration birds Congress Conservation Endangered species Environment Human activities man-made disasters MBTA Migratory Bird Treaty Act Nature wild animals

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