Trump administration cuts protection for wild birds

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – The Trump administration on Tuesday finalized changes that weaken the government’s enforcement powers under a century-old law protecting most U.S. wild bird species, dismissing warnings that billions of birds could die of it.

Federal wildlife officials have acknowledged that the move could lead to more deaths of birds such as those that land in oil wells or collide with power lines or other structures.

A U.S. District Court judge in August had blocked the administration’s previous attempt to change the way the Migratory Birds Treaty Act is applied.

But encouraged by industry groups, the Trump administration has remained adamant that the act has been used inappropriately for decades to penalize companies and other entities that accidentally kill birds.

More than 1,000 species are covered by the Migratory Birds Act, and the decision to relax enforcement standards has prompted a strong reaction from organizations that advocate for the interests of approximately 46 million US ornithologists.

Environmentalists said on Tuesday they would push President-elect Joe Biden to overturn Home Office rule, which prevents officials from laying criminal charges unless the birds are specifically targeted for death or injury.

Former US Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe and independent scientists said the change could cause a huge peak in bird mortality – potentially billions of birds over the next few decades, at a time when species in North America are already in sharp decline.

A Trump administration analysis of the rule change did not come up with a figure on how many more birds could die. But he said some vulnerable species may decline to the point of requiring protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Sources of industry and other human activities – from oil wells and wind turbines to collisions with vehicles and glass buildings – now kill an estimated 460 million to 1.4 billion birds per year, out of a total of 7.2 billion birds in North America, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and recent studies. Researchers say cats are the main source of death, killing more than 2 billion birds a year.

Many companies have sought to reduce bird deaths over the past decades by working in cooperation with wildlife officials, but the incentive to participate in such efforts diminishes in the absence of the threat of criminal liability.

The Migratory Birds Act of 1918 came after many bird populations in the United States were wiped out by hunting and poaching, much of it for the feathers of women’s hats.

The most high-profile enforcement case bought under the law resulted in a $ 100 million settlement by energy company BP, after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill killed around 100,000 birds.

Administration officials said the new rule was supposed to correspond to a 2017 legal opinion from the Home Office that effectively shut down law enforcement under the law for most of the month. Trump presidency. In the August court ruling that overturned that legal opinion, U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni in New York City said the law applied to all bird kills, not just those that were intentional.

But over the decades, federal courts have been divided over whether companies can be sued under Migratory Birds Act, with appellate courts ruling three times in favor of the industry and two. times against companies.

Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said Trump officials were granting oil companies and other industries “a license to kill birds.”

Home Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement that the change, which will take effect next month, “simply reaffirms the original meaning and intent of the Migratory Birds Treaty Act.” .

“The US Fish and Wildlife Service will not prosecute landowners, industry and other individuals for accidentally killing a migratory bird,” Bernhardt said.

A trade group in the electrical industry said it expected its members to continue taking action to reduce bird mortality. More than 30 million birds are killed each year in collisions with power lines and electrocution from utility poles, according to government estimates.

“We live and work in the communities we serve and have a strong history of volunteer work to protect wildlife and its habitats,” said Brian Reil of the Edison Electric Institute.

But companies that take voluntary action won’t protect against cases like the BP oil spill, said Jason Rylander, senior counsel for Defenders of Wildlife.

“These types of egregious situations should not exceed the enforcement power of the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Rylander said. “There are good and bad players in every industry. “

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