Elizabeth Klosky / Sun Sketch Artist

February 17, 2020

Change in Federal Policy Puts Lives of Migratory Birds at Stake

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For over 100 years, industrial activities inflicting harm to various bird species were regulated by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

In recent months, President Donald Trump’s administration has taken steps to overrule this legislation so that companies would no longer be held liable for unintentionally harming birds — which could potentially have harmful implications for the environment.

“Looking at birds is one way to better understand how our activities are affecting the environment and other species,” said Prof. Amanda Rodewald, natural resources, and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in an interview with The Sun.

According to Rodewald, the use of birds as indicators is one reason the international 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act was a pivotal step in improving environmental conservation. Initially implemented between the U.S. and Canada at its inception, the treaty applies to the U.S., the United Kingdom, Mexico, Japan and Russia.

“It is an international treaty because these migratory birds crossed borders, so we can’t just have one country responsible for their conservation,” Rodewald said.

The act also included a concept of “incidental take,” which means that companies are held liable for activities that do not directly target birds but unintentionally harm them. If companies were found liable, they would be fined by the federal government, and these funds were used to invest in habitats that support birds.

“This provided an important and powerful incentive for a lot of industries to take proactive steps to reduce harm to birds,” she said.

According to Rodewald, the vast majority of bird mortality is unintentional. For example, a company may accidentally cause an oil spill — such as the 2010 Gulf of Mexico incident which decreased the seabird population by hundreds of thousands — or create oil pits, where birds land only to become entrapped.

The act prompted companies to adapt more environmentally friendly practices, as in 2015, when communication towers changed their lighting making them less likely to attract and kill birds.

“A big part of the concern right now, by removing incidental take, is that industries and other businesses have absolutely no incentive to take those proactive steps,” Rodewald said.

In 2019, the Trump administration decided to reinterpret the act — the Department of Interior issued a formal opinion declaring that only companies that purposefully kill birds will be held liable. According to the Washington Post, oil companies would stand to gain from the reduced regulations.

Responding to the regulatory change, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) sponsored the Migratory Bill Protection Act, which calls to reinstate incidental take for commercial activities. Rodewald even testified to Congress in June in support of this bill.

This decision doesn’t just affect birds and bird lovers — the reinterpretation could have lasting consequences for humans too.

“It’s not just impacting birds, a lot of times these are actions that are broadly impacting the environment,” Rodewald said. “It’s a decision that private interests will benefit from by removing regulations, but the public is bearing the cost.”

In regards to how this new policy will directly impact the environment, Rodewald used the example of a company polluting a pond as a byproduct of an industrial activity.

“Certain commercial companies would have previously avoided that due to [the Migratory Bird Treaty Act] but now they are free to do that,” she said. “This impacts more species than just birds.”