Trump guts century-old law protecting migratory birds

Sandhill cranes (Krista Lundgren/USFWS)

UPDATE: On January 5, 2021, the Trump administration posted its final rule officially gutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and with just 14 days left in office, adding to a barrage of last-ditch efforts to lock in its anti-environment, anti-wildlife legacy. 


The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, one of the nation’s oldest species protection laws, makes it illegal to “pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect,” a migratory bird, whether intentionally or not. The language is comprehensive because many iconic avian species went extinct in the years before the law’s passage. Great auks, passenger pigeons, heath hens, and Carolina parakeets all disappeared forever in the late 18th and early 19th century. Wary of continued carnage, Congress intended for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to provide near-absolute protection for these species.

The biggest threats to migratory birds have changed over the past 100 years. Rather than commercial hunters seeking feathers for fashionable hats, the negligence of the oil and gas industry threatens millions of birds per year.

Oil spills are a well-known contributor to bird deaths—the Deepwater Horizon disaster alone killed more than 100 million birds on the Gulf Coast. Less obvious are the uncovered wastewater pits from oil and natural gas operations. The oily sheens on the surface of these pits attract birds, which land in the pit and become covered in the waste. Their deaths often create a chain reaction—hawks arrive to feast on the struggling bird, and themselves become fouled in the oil. And even if a bird escapes the immediate danger, it often dies soon after from the poisons ingested in the pit.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act held oil and gas companies accountable for massive bird slaughters. BP, for instance, paid $100 million for the birds it killed in the Gulf. As for the wastewater pits, inspectors regularly told oil and gas companies that, if the pits remained uncovered, they would be fined for each bird death.

President Trump has now taken away any accountability for industry bad actors by limiting prosecution only to situations of intentional bird killing. The administration calls this a “clarification” of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In fact, it is a direct reversal of the clear statutory language of this century-old law. The administration’s own analysis admits the rollback will negatively affect migratory bird populations, and scientists estimate the change will result in billions of dead birds each year. The gutting of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a disturbing acknowledgement of the administration’s complete disregard for environmental health and wildlife.

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