We have a huge jeer for the Trump administration for its latest evil, catastrophic move against wildlife—the destruction of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a century-old law to protect birds. One again it shows how reckless and out of step the administration is with past presidents and animal protection organizations.
In a legal opinion issued last week to the federal wildlife police who enforce the rule, the Interior Department said the law would not be used as it has been to hold people or companies accountable for killing the animals—making it a piece of cake for energy companies to get away with slaughtering birds.
For example, the opinion said, a person who destroys a structure such as a barn knowing that it is full of baby owls in nests is not liable for killing them. “All that is relevant is that the landowner undertook an action that did not have the killing of barn owls as its purpose,” the opinion said.
If that’s not bad enough, the MBTA will no longer apply even after a catastrophic event such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that destroyed or injured up to a million birds, according to a Washington Post article. After an oil spill, Interior would pursue penalties under the Natural Resources Damage Assessment program that is not specific to birds. In the past, “the department has pursued MBTA claims against companies responsible for oil spills that incidentally killed or injured migratory birds. That avenue is no longer available.”
The law was instrumental in prosecuting BP after the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010 and Exxon after the crash of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in 1989, both of which resulted in massive maritime spills that killed thousands of birds.
According to an analysis by the Audubon Society, oil companies were responsible for 90 percent of incidental takes prosecuted under the act, resulting in fines of $6,500 per violation.
The act “has been the tool the Fish and Wildlife Service has used to work with industry to implement basic management practices,” Sarah Greenberger, vice president of conservation for the Audubon Society, told the Washington Post. “The reason the industry covers tar pits is the Fish and Wildlife Service’s use of the MBTA as a tool to get them to the table. Why would you spend money to implement those, why would your shareholders even allow it, if there’s no reason?”
In 1916, amid the chaos of World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and King George V of Great Britain signed the Migratory Bird Treaty. This bold move was prompted by the decimation of bird populations across North America. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act wrote the treaty into U.S. law two years later. These measures protected more than 1,100 migratory bird species by making it illegal to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell live or dead birds, feathers, eggs and nests, except as allowed by permit or regulated hunting.
The best known success story that has resulted from the MBTA is the snowy egret, which was hunted almost to extinction for its delicate feathers before early conservationists like the Audubon Society, along with the federal government, stepped in to stop the slaughter. The MBTA is credited with saving numerous other species from extinction, including the wood duck and sand hill crane.