May 8, 2021
Renee Stone

May 8 is World Migratory Bird Day which celebrates the conservation and watching of birds. Most people love birds – some 45 million Americans are bird watchers – so it’s hard to understand why we wouldn’t protect them from harm. 

Students from Fillmore Elementary School learn how to use binoculars and search for endangered California condors on Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is directly behind and above the school.
Ian Shive/USFWS

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) is one of our oldest wildlife conservation laws, and its passage signaled the beginning of a wildlife protection ethic that continues a century later. The MBTA was signed into law on July 3, 1918, following the extinction of the once plentiful passenger pigeon and at a time when millions of birds were dying every year so their feathers could be used to decorate fashionable ladies’ hats. The Act made it unlawful to “pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect” any migratory bird species without a permit. 

Osprey Flying With a Dolly Vardin
Rebecca Wilks

Since then, the MBTA has protected more than 1,000 migratory bird species – from the cardinal in your backyard to the great blue heron at your local pond. The law protects birds from direct killing and from indiscriminate harm that can be caused by accident or negligence, like an oil spill.

As it did with many of our most effective environmental laws, the Trump administration sought to weaken these protections and finalized a rule in its waning days in office to insulate industry from the requirements of the MBTA. That is, to protect industry from having to avoid, or be fined for, recklessly killing thousands of birds.

The timing was disastrous. Our bird populations face serious threats that have led to a decline of 3 billion birds in North America since 1970, while two-thirds of our bird species are at risk from climate change. They need more protection, not less. 

Yet, there are glimmers of hope. 

Painted bunting on ground
Dan Pancamo

The Biden administration dropped the appeal of a federal district court ruling that struck down the Trump administration’s interpretation of the MBTA. And, happily, this week, the Biden administration has taken the first step to revoke the Trump administration rule. 

Protecting migratory birds is the right move. Millions of birds die annually from uncovered oil pits, collisions with communication towers, and electrocutions by power lines, and industry should take reasonable steps to avoid that slaughter.

Oiled pelican in gulf after BP oil spill June 2010
Krista Schlyer
Oiled pelican in gulf after BP oil spill June 2010.

The most infamous example was the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster which spilled more than 210 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, killing more than 1 million birds over four years following the blowout. BP paid $100 million in fines under the MBTA, money that has been used to restore wetlands and habitat, and to support migratory bird conservation.

Avocet at the Arsenal
Mike Millner / USFWS

Rep. Lowenthal (D-Calif.) introduced a bill last January to permanently protect our nation’s birds. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland supported the measure when she was a House member. We urge Congress and the Biden administration to restore protections for birds under the MBTA and create a new pathway for permitting under the law to help conserve birds and encourage practices that protect birds from the raft of threats they face today.

We have no time to waste – the time is now to protect birds and to strengthen, not weaken, the MBTA.

Author(s)

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Renee Stone

Renee Stone

Senior Vice President for Conservation Programs and General Counsel
Renee Stone joined Defenders in June 2020 and serves as Senior Vice President for Conservation Programs and General Counsel.
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