Don’t undermine protection for birds

Acentury ago, bird feathers were all the rage in fashion. Hats and other adornments used feathers of all sorts. In London, snowy egret feathers brought twice the price, by weight, of gold. Hunters nearly wiped out this bird to meet the millinery demand.

But hunting for the feather trade and the use of wild bird game in commercial food markets ended in the United States with the passage, in 1918, of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, or MBTA. It replaced an inadequate patchwork of state laws, to protect over-hunted species uniformly across state and national boundaries.


The MBTA is one of three laws that protect birds in the United States. The other two — the Endangered Species Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act — together protect only a few dozen species; the only legal recourse for more than 1,000 bird species is the MBTA.

But now the MBTA is itself threatened. In the dying days of the Trump administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scheduled a rule change to reduce the act’s scope to categorically exclude “unintentional” impacts on birds, effective Jan. 7. If enacted as proposed, the MBTA would no longer regulate actions, other than hunting, which harm migratory birds. Thankfully, implementation of the Trump rule change was delayed by the Biden administration, and the rule is currently being reviewed.

As a scientist who works with industry to achieve sustainability through environmental compliance, I find this proposal untenable. It would leave a thousand bird species from mundane sparrows to more glorious hawks without recourse from the principal sources of human-caused bird mortality.

Ever greater and more prosperous human populations demanding ever-more advanced gadgets fueled by electricity and petroleum have developed far more effective tools for killing birds than a shotgun. Electric wires, communications towers, oil industry facilities, buildings, wind turbines, and even cats account for far more deaths of migratory birds than hunting today.

Beginning in the 1970s, the MBTA was used to prosecute bird kills in farm industry activities, and later other industries, with mixed results.

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred just off the Alaska shore. More than 1,000 miles of shoreline were contaminated by oil; at least 250,000 seabirds died. On April 20, 2010, an explosion and fire occurred on the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon, in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil slicks coated more than 1,000 miles of shoreline. More than 8,000 oil-drenched birds were retrieved from the ocean, perhaps only a tenth of those that perished undetected. Both companies were fined more than $100 million each — under the MBTA.

Without the act’s reach to “unintentional” impacts on birds, even inexpensive, simple industry standards would not be implemented to protect birds against oil pits, electric lines and communication towers, pesticide applications, wastewater management and wind turbines.


We need sound legislation that makes industry act responsibly, and your opinion can be heard.

Public comment is being accepted by the U.S. government through March 1 (see, docket number FWS-HQ-MB-2018-0090).

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