It is undeniable that the Trump-Pence administration had a deplorable record when it came to environmental policy throughout their four years in office. While the Biden-Harris administration was moving forward with preparations for a transfer of power, Trump’s administration was at work on a final blow to further eliminate ecological safeguards. This time, their target was birds.
Ironically, on National Bird Day (January 4th), Trump rolled back protections for over 1,100 migratory bird species by gutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). Without this act, it’s permissible for individuals and companies to kill migratory birds just as long as they “didn’t mean to.” Naturally, conservation groups blasted this heinous decision, calling it a desperate attempt by the former administration on its final leg to grant industry a free pass to kill birds without repercussions.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 forbids the killing, capturing, selling, transport and trade of protected migratory bird species without authorization from the Department of the Interior. Exceptions can be made if an individual or company receives a permit from the FWS, which allows activities such as falconry, taxidermy, propagation, depredation, and scientific and educational use. The MBTA implemented four international conservation treaties the U.S. entered jointly with Canada in 1916, Mexico in 1936, Japan in 1976, and finally Russia in 1976. The law was amended twice, once with Mexico in 1976 and again with Canada in 1995. The ultimate goal of the act is to ensure the sustainability of all bird populations listed as protected migratory species.
A migratory bird species was included on the list if it met one or more of the following criteria: 1) It naturally occurs in the U.S. or U.S. territories as a result of ecological or biological processes and currently or formerly was listed as a part of a protected family, as dictated by one or more of the four international treaties or their amendments; 2) Taxonomy revisions result in the species being newly split from another species previously on the list, and the new species occurs in either the U.S. or U.S. territories, again as the result of natural biological or ecological processes; 3) There is new evidence for the species’ natural occurrence in the U.S. or U.S. territories, which results from natural distributional changes.
It was no exception that for decades presidents, regardless of their party, interpreted the rule to prohibit “incidental take,” meaning unintentional yet predictable bird death, which occurs most frequently at industrial sites. Historically, the FWS would only enforce the rule in cases of egregious take. One notable instance was the death of an estimated one million birds in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, for which there was a $100 million fine against BP. Fearing the threat of prosecution, many companies have adopted more simple, inexpensive preventative measures to spare avian deaths, such as covering oil pits and spacing out power lines to avoid electrocuting raptors.
While the decision to throw out the century old law may appear to be spur of the moment, the Trump administration actually began work to dismantle this act shortly after entering office. In 2017, the Interior’s top lawyer, Daniel Jorjani, issued an opinion that the MBTA prohibits only intentional killing and not incidental take. As many as 17 former Interior secretaries sent former department head Ryan Zinke letters to urge him to reconsider that interpretation of the law. Similarly, both states and conservation groups took action by suing the department, claiming their policy reinterpretation violated the purpose of the MBTA. Ironically, it was the Interior’s own analysis that forecasts that changing the rule could put some birds on the brink of extinction in a time where scientists are already saying 3 million North American birds have been lost over the past century alone.
Fortunately, opponents say that this rule reversal shouldn’t survive the Biden administration, which already has made advances to undo other Trump Era decisions by rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and halting progress on the Keystone XL Pipeline. CEO of Defenders of Wildlife Jamie Rappaport Clark gave a statement assuring that “the new regulation, issued as the Trump administration is leaving office, is illegal and will not stand.” Meanwhile, the FWS unsurprisingly stood by the Trump administration’s decision. In a press release, director Aurelia Skipwith affirmed the former administration's commitment to using law and science in decision making processes, and claimed that the transparent public process to finalize the decision was an indication of their dedication to conservation efforts.
Already, the National Audubon Society has filed a lawsuit to see that the MBTA is restored, and U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni ruled in the Southern District of New York that not only is the new FWS interpretation flawed, but it is completely incorrect. There have been victories in other courts, but conservationists are now pushing Congress to make it crystal clear what the MBTA stands for.
Detrimental rollbacks like this are proof of the Trump administration’s prioritization of corporations over environmental wellbeing. However, as long as there are bird lovers out there, exploitative methods, such as the reversal of the MBTA, don’t stand a chance. Regardless of one’s political alignment, we must all be able to appreciate that migratory birds are not only a spectacle to behold, but play integral roles in ecosystems throughout the country, and must be protected now and in years to come.
Written By-- Mia Rosati
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