Energy & Environment

Dems urge Interior to reverse new policy that could threaten birds


A group of Democratic lawmakers is urging the Interior Department to reverse a recently changed policy that they believe could endanger birds. 

In a letter sent to Secretary Ryan Zinke Thursday, 63 members of Congress called for Interior to reverse course on its new internal interpretation of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), which environmentalists say protects more than 1,000 species of migrating birds across North America.

“We believe that the Department’s interpretation of the MBTA violates the Congressional intent of the [MBTA] law,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “Congress determined that protected birds shall not be killed ‘by any means or in any manner’ without a permit, and administrations for decades have reasonably applied the law’s mandate to address not only hunting, but industrial hazards as well.” 

The lawmakers, led by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), believe the Trump administration’s new interpretation will exempt industries from liability if birds are killed in the course of carrying out their business.


Interior announced a legal opinion in December that changed the Obama-era secretarial opinion that incidental killings of migratory birds under the act were as forbidden as intentional killing or ruining of habitat. Instead, the new opinion found that considering the two acts to be the same was too harsh.

“Interpreting the MBTA to apply to incidental or accidental actions hangs the sword of Damocles over a host of otherwise lawful and productive actions, threatening up to six months in jail and a $15,000 penalty for each and every bird injured or killed,” reads the opinion.

The new policy concluded that the MBTA would only extend to “affirmative actions that have as their purpose the taking or killing of migratory birds, their nests, or their eggs.”

Not only does the act determine what actions are prohibited against migratory birds, but it also provides a tool to determine the penalties against rule breakers.

For example, the lawmakers noted that MBTA fines from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that killed over one million birds totaled $100 million.

The members of Congress wrote that the change of opinion on incidental harm would bind the hands of the agency.

“Eliminating agency authority to address incidental take [deaths] under the MBTA risks reversing the significant progress the nation has made in recovering and maintaining bird populations, needlessly ties the hands of the Department’s wildlife professionals, and undermines our international obligations,” the letter read. 

They called the new policy an “unconscionable rollback of one of our most important conservation laws.”

Zinke on a number of occasions has remarked that wind power frequently leads to the death of birds — a response typically given to questions about the harm of fossil fuel emissions.

At a Senate hearing in March, Zinke said, “Every energy source has its consequences … Wind chops up birds.”

Nearly 400,000 birds are killed by wind turbines each year.

Tags Alan Lowenthal Bird conservation Bird migration birds Migratory Bird Treaty Act migratory birds Ryan Zinke turbines wind
See all Hill.TV See all Video