From peregrine falcons to ruby-throated hummingbirds, migratory birds across the world are being recognized today for their unique contribution to biodiversity and their ability to connect people with nature. Birding generates billions in ecotourism revenue and just last weekend on Global Big Day, 32,500 people ventured outside in 171 countries, finding 6,816 species. That’s a new world record for the number of people birding on a single day, and all these passionate birders found two-thirds of the world’s bird species. Birds intrigue nature enthusiasts from 1–99 with babies looking out at a bird feeder to retired folks walking the trails early in the mornings.
On this World Migratory Bird Day, in addition to celebrating the birds that bring smiles to our faces as they return in spring, we must not forget to celebrate the most important law protecting bird species in the United States — the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).
The MBTA, which celebrated its centennial just last year, implements treaties signed with Canada, Mexico, Russia and Japan to protect bird species migrating between these counties and the U.S. This landmark legislation is one of our oldest and most successful conservation laws and is credited with saving many beloved species, like the wood duck, snowy egret, and sandhill crane, from extinction. Today, the law protects more than 1,000 species of migratory birds.
While the MBTA was originally enacted to save bird populations from the devastating impacts of overhunting and the plume trade, today birds face many new threats — from climate change to expanding modern infrastructure — and for decades, the MBTA not only protected birds from intentional harm, but also helped save birds from unintentional, but predictable, deaths from industrial activities.
With millions of birds killed each year from uncovered oil waste pits, power lines, and communication towers, the MBTA has been a critical tool for incentivizing companies to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to develop best management practices to minimize bird deaths. Corporations that did not adopt these simple measures could then be held liable under the law for the harm they inadvertently caused to birds. After nearly a million birds like brown pelicans, royal terns, and laughing gulls perished in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP was assessed a $100 million fine that was then used to restore important habitat in the Gulf of Mexico region.
But, in December 2017, the Department of the Interior released a sweeping reinterpretation of the MBTA, declaring that the law only covers actions that kill birds on purpose. This unprecedented decision unravels decades of progress made by FWS to help reduce bird deaths and gives industry a free pass to kill birds without repercussions. It reverses an understanding of the law that dates back to the Nixon era — and has been upheld in every single administration since. This diminishes the leadership of the U.S. in conserving migratory birds, and a bipartisan coalition of 17 former Department of the Interior officials spanning the last 40 years sent a letter to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke condemning the decision.
Unfortunately, we are already seeing the effects of this undue policy change on the ground. Records requests have revealed that the FWS has not been able to act against recent oil spills that have claimed the lives of dozens of birds, further imperiling species and eliminating a key source of funding for wetland habitat restoration.
As we continue to celebrate the success of the MBTA and the joy that migrating birds bring to our spring and autumn skies, we are hopeful that the 116th Congress will consider legislation that overturns the Interior’s reckless decision and restores protections for migratory birds. At a time when one in eight bird species is threatened with extinction, we must uphold our duty to protect these important creatures for Americans who care about our birds and value a walk through nature in the company of birdsongs.