Washington, DC – The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife will take up a discussion draft bill this week that would reaffirm protections for more than a thousand species of migratory birds from industrial hazards such as oil pits, power lines, communications towers and more. Longstanding protections against “incidental take,” the unintentional yet predictable and avoidable killing of birds in the course of industrial activities, were rolled back by the Trump administration in a controversial December 2017 legal opinion. The Interior Department has indicated it plans to publish a proposed new rule soon based on that legal opinion. The new rule would codify changes to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) regulations and further entrench this unprecedented roll back.
“At a time when there is urgent need to advance and strengthen bird conservation tools, the current administration has taken unprecedented steps to weaken or eliminate them,” says Stanley Senner, National Audubon Society’s Vice President for Bird Conservation, in testimony delivered to the subcommittee. “This policy change affects every state, district, and person who cares about birds, and apparently was decided without any analysis of the impacts to bird populations and without public input.” Senner’s testimony concludes: “Audubon is ready to work with this Subcommittee and others to find common ground on this vital law and help protect birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow.”
The Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Hearing will stream live at the committee website,
https://naturalresources.house.gov/hearings/wow-legislative-hearing4, on Thursday, June 13, 2019 at 10:00 AM.
In his testimony (full testimony PDF here), Senner outlines some ways in which the MBTA has served as an incentive that helps industries like oil and gas, wind energy and communications to develop practices that save birds’ lives, for example:
- Power transmission infrastructure: installing diverters on power lines, and retrofitting power poles to increase the spacing between the energized elements, saving a significant number of birds and limiting the potential for fires and outages that can result when birds are electrocuted.
- Oil development: With leadership from federal and state wildlife agencies to cover and clean up oil pits, bird mortality has fallen by half: 500,000 to 1 million birds are now killed each year. Still, that number is on par with estimated mortalities from catastrophic oil spills like the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the BP spill and more needs to be done.
- Wind energy: Given that climate change is the greatest threat birds face, Audubon supports renewable energy. The MBTA has helped spur wind-energy guidelines and the development and implementation of new operational technology, such as Identiflight, which is showing great promise, to minimize bird deaths.
For decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the Act's prohibition on the killing or "taking" of migratory birds has been interpreted to extend to incidental take from industrial activities. Under the Trump administration's revised interpretation, the MBTA’s protections apply only to activities that purposefully kill birds. Any “incidental” take—no matter how inevitable or devastating the impact on birds—becomes immune from enforcement under the law.
The administration’s position has been met with widespread criticism. 17 former Interior Department officials wrote a letter asking the administration to suspend the opinion, as did dozens of members of Congress and more than 500 wildlife and environmental groups from all 50 states. Audubon filed suit in May 2018 challenging the opinion, which was followed by eight states also filing suit.
Audubon’s landing page for MBTA resources: https://www.audubon.org/news/migratory-bird-treaty-act
Find a fact sheet on the MBTA, birds and energy industries here.
The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. Audubon works throughout the Americas using, science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. State programs, nature centers, chapters, and partners give Audubon an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire, and unite diverse communities in conservation action. A nonprofit conservation organization since 1905, Audubon believes in a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Learn more how to help at www.audubon.org and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @audubonsociety.
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