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A snowy egret seen in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2015. President Donald Trump's new proposal to roll back a century-old rule protecting migrating birds from "incidental" harm by corporations would harm millions of birds, conservation groups say. (Photo: Kishore Bhargava/Flickr/cc)

After Protections Gutted, Audubon Society Dubs Trump Interior Dept. the 'Bird Killer Department'

"When powerful corporate interests tell the Department of Interior to jump, officials there routinely ask 'how high?'"

Julia Conley, staff writer

Green groups and conservationists are accusing the Trump administration of taking instructions straight from the fossil fuel industry after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday proposed rolling back a century-old law protecting birds from industrial accidents.

The agency, which is part of the Interior Department, announced it is moving to finalize a rollback of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA), which prohibits the killing of birds, nests, or eggs without a permit "by any means or in any manner"—including accidentally.

"The Trump administration's Bird Killer Department—formerly known as the Interior—just gets crueler and more craven every day." —David Yarnold, Audubon SocietyThe proposal comes two years after the Independent Petroleum Producers Association, a former client of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, called on the agency to roll back the MBTA.

"When powerful corporate interests tell the Department of Interior to jump, officials there routinely ask 'how high?'" said Alan Zibel, research director for Public Citizen's Corporate Presidency Project. "This particular giveaway is a direct request of a former client of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and proves once again that the Trump administration is intent on attacking conservation laws in every way possible... Bernhardt has no interest in holding big energy companies accountable."

Dubbing the Interior Department the Trump administration's "Bird Killer Department," Audubon Society president David Yarnold called the rule change "cruel and craven."

For decades under the MBTA, companies have been fined and prosecuted for failing to adopt measures to prevent migrating birds from flying into infrastructure, being killed in oil spills, and dying due to actions by construction crews and projects.

Up to 64 million birds per year are killed by power lines, while up to seven million are killed by communication towers annually. 

Industry leaders and the Trump administration have argued that companies should only be held accountable for purposefully killing birds—not if accidents result in their deaths, as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill did when the disaster killed more than one million birds.

The agency released an opinion in 2017, around the time that the IPPA made its request, saying companies should not be liable for accidents that kill birds. 

Since the opinion was released, the administration has reportedly drastically cut down on its investigations of bird deaths and advised companies that precautions to keep birds safe are unnecessary.

The president hopes to finalize the rule change before the general election in November, which would make it more difficult for a future president for reverse Trump's action.

The rollback has been condemned by 17 former Interior officials and hundreds of conservation groups, including the National Wildlife Federation.

"The rule sends an irresponsible—and legally incorrect—signal to industry that common-sense measures to protect birds like the snowy egret, wood duck and greater sandhill crane are no longer needed," said Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. "We urge the Trump administration to reverse course and restore protections for America's birds."

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