Trump rolls back protections for migratory birds

Great Blue Heron Graham Sorenson

While COVID-19 continues to dominate news headlines, the Trump administration has been quietly rolling back a variety of environmental and climate change-related regulations. One proposed change to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act could result in the deaths of millions of birds that travel seasonally back and forth through the United States.

The century-old bi-national legislation includes fines and criminal prosecution for intentionally or inadvertently killing any of the more than 800 migratory species listed under the act, or destroying their habitat. The U.S. Interior Department wants to remove the threat of prosecution for “incidental” fatalities caused by industrial activities including birds that land in oil pits or toxic tailing ponds from mining, and collisions with power lines, telecommunications infrastructure, and wind turbines.

“It’s not good for migratory birds that reside [part of the year] in Canada,” says Steven Price, president of Birds Canada. “It puts the vast majority of species at further risk.”

While charges were rarely laid, avian experts agree that the threat of prosecution had had a deterrent effect. (The largest settlement to date was a $100-million charge against BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil platform disaster polluted large swaths of the Gulf of Mexico.)

“The focus was on education and cooperation [with industry]. But this removes the safety net of last resort for the regressive player who does not want to play by the rules,” says Price.

Estimates range that there are anywhere from 5- to 20-billion birds in North America. Roughly 70 percent of bird species—and the vast majority of individual birds—that reside at least part of the year in Canada are migratory, travelling to or through the U.S. to their winter habitats. These migrants, including swans, sparrows, flycatchers, and loons, head back north in a roughly six-month window between mid-January and mid-June to breeding grounds across the country.

Industry lobbyists have long argued that the regulations impede business. In March, the Edison Electric Institute issued a statement arguing that “criminal prosecution for performing otherwise legal business activities” was “absurd” and that monitoring programs are “cost-prohibitive.”

Already, at least one major project in the U.S. has gone ahead as a result of the rule reinterpretation. In 2019, as part of a bridge and tunnel expansion in Virginia, an island used by 25,000 birds—including locally endangered species of gulls and terns—was paved over, eliminating the largest seabird nesting site in the state.

As a result of the controversy, in February, Virginia announced its own state plan to protect nesting sites in light of the lack of federal enforcement.

Birds to look for this spring

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