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Trump guts Migratory Bird Treaty Act in ‘parting gift to the oil and gas industry’

Migratory Bird Treaty Act
Golden-winged Warbler. Photo by Paul Kammen

Just two weeks before leaving office, the Trump administration finalized its rollback of America’s most important bird-protection law, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

The Interior Department, as the New York Times wrote, delivered “a parting gift to the oil and gas industry, which has long sought to be shielded from liability for killing birds unintentionally in oil spills, toxic waste ponds and other environmental disasters.”

The Times explains what changed:

“Under the measure, which changes the way the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act is implemented, the federal government will no longer fine or prosecute companies whose actions cause the death of birds, as long as killing birds was not the underlying intent of the action. That holds true for accidents like oil spills and electrocutions on power lines — and also intentional or even illegal acts, like the spraying of a banned pesticide — as long as birds are not the intended target of the poison.”

“Americans want birds and nature taken care of – not swept aside to serve commercial interests. We urge the incoming administration to right this wrong as rapidly as possible,” said Steve Holmer of American Bird Conservancy.


‘Reckless and unconscionable’

Last January, Congressman Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat of California, introduced a bill called the Migratory Bird Protection Act (H.R. 5552) to reverse the administration’s reinterpretation of the MBTA and reaffirm the law’s intent to protect migratory birds from industrial activities. Currently, 96 House members have signed on to the bill.

He issued this statement about Trump’s rollback:

“The Trump administration’s effort to roll back the MBTA in the waning days of its time in office is as reckless and unconscionable as it is unsurprising. For more than a century the MBTA has been a critical tool for migratory bird conservation. The Trump administration has spent nearly four years trying to weaken and hamper the act, including its dangerous reinterpretation of the act, which not only undermines our international treaty obligations but also does not hold commercial interests accountable when they endanger birds. If the Trump administration had its way, polluters would escape liability for damages when disasters, like oil spills, occur. The company behind the next major oil spill will not be held liable for killing birds as was done after Exxon Valdez and BP’s Deepwater Horizon. Even as they are literally packing their bags to leave, the Trump administration continues its unrelenting assault on our environment protections only highlighting its willingness to sacrifice our wildlife and our environment to protect polluters. It is critically important that the House and Senate move quickly in the new Congress to pass my Migratory Bird Protection Act and that the incoming Biden administration moves just as quickly to fix this short-sighted rule.”


More anti-bird moves

The move to gut the MBTA is one of several actions Trump is taking that anger conservationists. For instance:

  • In mid-December, the administration released a final rule that allows for extensive exemptions of critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that will substantially weaken protections for wildlife. This rule is likely to be especially detrimental to species that depend on federal lands, such as the Northern Spotted Owl, Marbled Murrelet, and Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, according to American Bird Conservancy.
  • The recently passed budget bill included a measure that blocks the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from protecting the Greater Sage-Grouse under the ESA. More than 100 conservation groups “have long opposed this dangerous rider, which harms not only the sage-grouse but also the Sagebrush Sea which provides habitat for more than 350 other species of conservation concern,” writes Defenders of Wildlife.
  • The Bureau of Land Management opened millions of acres in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve to drilling, threatening habitat for polar bears, caribou, and migratory birds. “These changes together with proposed leasing in the Arctic Refuge mean that virtually all of America’s Arctic coastline is subject to seismic exploration and potential future oil and gas development,” reports Defenders of Wildlife.
  • The U.S. Forest Service has plans to allow mining giant Rio Tinto access to Oak Flat, an area of the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona. The move will permit a copper mine on land that is rich in birds, cacti, and aquatic life — and that is sacred ground for Western Apache tribes. Learn more from the Center for Biological Diversity and Russ McSpadden on Twitter.
  • As we have documented in past articles, Trump’s border wall threatens all sorts of wildlife and birds along the U.S.-Mexico border. And in its final weeks, wall construction continues, destroying mile after mile of desert habitat. At the spot where the San Pedro River flows north from Mexico into Arizona, crews have been “rapidly building a 30-foot high steel bollard-style wall across the riverbed,” CNN reports. The article references an Arizona Audubon report that says 40% of bird species in North America spend part of their lives on the San Pedro River at some point. For regular updates on the wall, follow Laiken Jordahl on Twitter. 

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and You can reach him at [email protected].

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