Conservation Column: Migratory Birds Need Our Help

Many of us share an appreciation for migratory birds. One hundred years ago (that’s 1918), people recognized the need to protect migratory and native species. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) that resulted is one of the finest and most far-reaching environmental laws ever passed in the United States. Now it’s in trouble.

Many birders, anxious to see old friends return from their wintering grounds, venture out first thing in the morning to brave the unpredictable weather at this time of year. Not to be outdone by these intrepid folks, I too am prepared for sighting the winged harbingers of spring. I’ve taken the exciting step of placing binoculars right next to my bedside so I can watch the spring arrivals at the feeder outside my window.

I might not travel far but some of them do. Bar-tailed Godwits, for example, make a nine-day non-stop migratory flight of about 6,000 miles. Whether it’s long or short hops along the way, all birds face many hazards on their migratory journey as well as when they reach their destinations. For a remarkably long time, a positive effect of the landmark MBTA has been to hold companies accountable for development that would harm birds. Well, that’s about to change.

The Trump administration has issued a legal ruling that undermines the MBTA by excluding industry from compliance with the law. In addition, the House of Representatives is considering a bill to gut the law. Reasonable people, regardless of political affiliation, are dismayed at the loss of protections for our birds. In January, Interior Secretary Zinke received a letter urging him to “suspend this ill-conceived opinion.” The letter was penned by 17 former wildlife officials, all Senate-confirmed political appointees of both Republican and Democratic Presidents who served between 1971 to 2017.

Formerly, under the MBTA, companies worked with federal officials for guidance, received warnings to encourage better practices, and finally received fines for non-compliance, along with occasional prosecutions to keep them accountable for harm to wildlife. The MBTA incentivized best management practices through enforcement discretion, although egregious violations of the Act were sometimes prosecuted. For example, in 2013 Duke Energy pled guilty to charges that they failed to make reasonable efforts to reduce bird fatalities at commercial wind projects. In the plea agreement, they committed to compliance plans to minimize bird deaths at their facilities. Also in that year, BP oil pled guilty to violations of the MBTA resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Settlement money helped restore critical bird habitat impacted in the Gulf Coast. It included payment to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund for conservation of wetlands and migratory birds.

The MBTA fostered solutions and, fortunately, many bird deaths caused by industry are preventable. For instance, the toxic waste ponds at oil- and gas-processing facilities can be covered with netting to keep water-seeking birds from landing. Commercial fishing companies can prevent drowning of albatross and other pelagic birds by attaching weights to their lines so they descend into the water. At structures such as communications towers, bird collisions can be prevented by installing flashing lights instead of steady lights, which are known to fatally attract birds. Diverters, spacers, and markers prevent birds from electrocution on power lines. Under the administration’s new ruling, companies will no longer have to implement these protections and they will not be held accountable for the results.

Help celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the MBTA by urging policy makers to keep the law strong.

To lend support, add your name to this petition:

Or email Secretary Ryan Zinke:

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