Conservation Groups Fight for Federal Bird Protections as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act Turns 100

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Conservation Groups Fight for Federal Bird Protections as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act Turns 100
(REmi Jouan/Wikimedia Commons)

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Migratory Bird Treaty Act turns 100 this week, leading conservation groups to dub 2018 the "Year of the Bird" - and to ask the Trump administration to live up to the spirit of the law.

The MBTA made it illegal to pursue, hunt, take or capture migratory birds. Last December, the U.S. Interior Department rescinded Obama-era guidelines about prosecuting companies that cause bird deaths. Then the DOI issued a new legal opinion, saying companies may not be prosecuted for unintentional bird deaths, or an "incidental take."

Bob Dreher, senior vice president for conservation with Defenders of Wildlife says the new guidelines amount to a license to kill.

"The new administration's position, which is that the act just doesn't cover industrial 'take' at all, gives these industries just a free hand," says Dreher. "They don't have to do anything in order to avoid the killing of migratory birds, even though they know that it will occur from what they're doing, and even though there may be reasonable and cost-effective things they could do to avoid killing birds."

The government used the MBTA to prosecute BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010 and the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. A Trump administration spokesman said the Obama-era guidelines "criminalized all actions that killed migratory birds, whether purposeful or not," and called the new rules "a victory over the regulatory state."

Dreher says taking protective action to avoid bird deaths is a simple matter - like adding nets to oil waste ponds to keep birds from landing on what they think is a water source.

"When they land on those oil pits or oil tanks, they immediately get immersed in oil and they die in the pit," says Dreher. "And there can be tens of thousands of birds that will get killed in a single large oil pit or oil tank."

Several conservation groups have filed suit to challenge the administration's actions. Public records show that oil companies spent almost a half-million dollars last year lobbying the Trump administration to revise the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
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