In 1916, the United States and Canada reached a landmark agreement to protect migratory birds, many of which were being hunted to the brink for fashion or food. The Migratory Bird Treaty became U.S. federal law in 1918 as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, one of the nation’s earliest and most influential pieces of environmental legislation. Passed in the nick of time, the act saved herons, egrets, waterfowl, and other birds from going the route of the Passenger Pigeon and other now-vanished species.
Now the act itself is under attack, facing proposed changes that would undo the safeguards it provides for birds. The U.S. House of Representatives is considering an amendment eliminating protection for migratory birds that fall victim to oil spills, wind turbines, and other energy infrastructure. The language is part of a bill called the SECURE Act, HR 4239. In addition, the Department of the Interior has drafted a new legal interpretation of the law, changing a long-standing policy that the act covers these deaths.
The act does not put too heavy a burden on industry. It encourages energy companies to adopt best-management practices, like covering oil pits with screens to keep birds from being trapped and killed. In practice, enforcement of the act has only occurred when companies failed to adopt such practices — and ignored government warnings.
In a remarkable show of support for keeping the act strong, a bipartisan group of 17 high-ranking officials from previous administrations sent a letter to the interior secretary opposing the change. The new interpretation “needlessly undermines a history of great progress, undermines the effectiveness of the migratory bird treaties, and diminishes U.S. leadership,” they wrote.
Migratory birds have inherent value. They also drive economic growth. Birders spend millions of dollars on wildlife-watching equipment, backyard birding supplies, and birding tours. Birds also provide essential services to people, from natural control of insect pests to crop pollination.
According to the 2016 State of the Birds Report, a third of North America’s bird species are in decline. Now is the time to increase protections for migratory birds, not undercut the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other bedrock laws that sustain them.
A version of this article will appear in the April 2018 issue of BirdWatching magazine.
This story was provided by American Bird Conservancy, a 501(c)(3), not-for-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas.
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