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Migratory Birds

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, one of the nation's oldest wildlife protection laws, is credited with saving millions of lives each year. In this October 23, 2020 photo, a Pacific loon spreads its wings. (Photo: Sunny/Flickr/cc)

Wildlife Defenders Cheer Restoration of Migratory Bird Protections Gutted Under Trump

"The world is on the brink of a sixth mass extinction," said the director of one advocacy group. "Enforcing conservation laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is vital."

Brett Wilkins

Wildlife conservationists on Wednesday welcomed the U.S. Department of the Interior's imminent reversal of a Trump administration attempt to roll back a key law credited with saving the lives of millions of migratory birds each year.

"Oil and gas companies must be held accountable when their actions lead to wildlife deaths."
—Jennifer Rokala,
Center for Western Priorities

In a statement, the Interior Department said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take "a series of actions to ensure that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) conserves birds today and into the future."

Last November, the Trump administration proposed an industry-friendly relaxation of the MBTA that would let energy, construction, and land development companies off the hook for "incidentally" killing birds, despite an Interior Department warning that the rule shift would result in 500 million to one billion avian deaths per year.

The rule was finalized on January 7 in what the Western Values Project called a "parting gift to Big Oil by corrupt former oil lobbyist Interior Secretary David Bernhardt."

The Interior Department—which first announced its intention to reverse the rule change in May—says it will now return to banning incidental bird kills and implementing "enforcement discretion consistent with judicial precedent and long-standing agency practice prior to 2017."

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement that the MBTA "represents more than 100 years of America's commitment to protecting migratory birds and restoring declining bird populations."

"The impacts of climate change coupled with loss and degradation of habitat are pushing more and more wildlife species to the brink," she added. "Today we are announcing critical steps to ensure that the act can help conserve birds today and in the future."

According to the Interior Department:

Over the last 50 years, the population of North American birds has declined by an estimated three billion birds. Many of the 1,093 species of birds protected under the MBTA are experiencing population decreases due to increased threats across the continent. Just recently, the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service released the Birds of Conservation Concern 2021 report with 269 bird species considered to be in greatest need of conservation attention.

Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Shannon Estenoz said that "our next step will be to create a commonsense approach to regulating the incidental take of migratory birds that works to both conserve birds and provide regulatory certainty to industry and stakeholders."

Jennifer Rokala, executive director at the conservationist group Center for Western Priorities, hailed the move.

"This commonsense reversal is welcome news for North American bird populations, which have dropped dramatically over the last 50 years," she said in a statement. "Oil and gas companies must be held accountable when their actions lead to wildlife deaths."

"The world is on the brink of a sixth mass extinction. Enforcing conservation laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is vital," Rokala added. "Now the Biden administration must move quickly to heed the warnings of scientists and protect 30% of America's land and water by 2030."

Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement that "the Trump administration's rule was disastrous when it was enacted and it's a huge relief to see it buried for good. We need the full protections of the MBTA at this crucial moment in time when so many bird populations are in peril. It's a great day for bird lovers everywhere!"

"We now expect the Biden administration to really cement this victory by creating a robust permitting program for incidental take," added Clark. "We look forward to working with the administration to create a scientifically sound pathway for permitting under the law that will both conserve birds and provide greater certainty and efficient permitting for regulated stakeholders."

Passed in 1918, the MBTA is one of the nation's oldest wildlife protection laws. In addition to saving millions of avian lives annually, the law "is credited with rescuing the snowy egret, wood duck, and sandhill crane from extinction," according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Corporate bird-killers had lobbied for the Trump-era rule change, seeking to avoid steep MBTA penalties like the $125 million that ExxonMobil was forced to pay following the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster and the $100 million fine levied on BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill that killed an estimated 100,000 sea birds.

A 2019 New York Times investigation found that even before the rule change, the Trump administration had stopped investigating most bird deaths while discouraging businesses and local governments from taking measures to protect avian life.

The Interior Department's announcement came on the same day that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing 22 animals including numerous birds and one plant from the endangered species list due to their extinction.

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