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Opinion: Biden administration must act fast to save migratory birds

White bird with black cap, wings outspread in midair.
An Arctic tern defends its territory. This bird species is famous for its migration; it flies from its Arctic breeding grounds to the Antarctic and back again each year. Image via Lindsay Robinson/ Flickr.

This opinion article is written by Kelcie Walther, an undergraduate in Columbia University’s Department of Ecology, Environmental Biology and Evolutionary Biology. It’s republished with permission from GlacierHub.

On January 5, 2021, the day before the world watched in horror as the U.S. Capitol was assaulted, the Trump administration laid siege to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The revision is a major blow to conservation efforts, lifting penalties for industries that accidentally cause harm to birds protected under the act.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was enacted in 1918, originally sought to protect migratory birds from being hunted. At the time, feathers were a major fashion commodity, and bird populations were being decimated. In addition to protecting birds from intentional slaughter, it also protected its listed species from being killed by “incidental take,” the unintentional loss of birds as a consequence of an otherwise legal activity. In the century since its inception, human activity has led to many potential hazards for birds.

Woman in big hat with spray of dozens of feathers on it.
A 1912 photograph of a woman wearing a hat adorned with feathers. Image via George Grantham Bain Collection/ Library of Congress/ Audubon.

Felicity Arengo, the associate director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History, said in an interview with GlacierHub:

Many industrial activities can result in incidental take. Wind turbines, construction of pipelines and shipping channels … even beach cleaning (which destroys the nests of ground-nesting shorebirds).

For years the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has been used to hold oil and power companies accountable for such unintentional deaths. The act laid the groundwork for the $100 billion settlement that British Petroleum paid after the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, which killed an estimated one million birds. Because of this recent change, the act no longer provides a means through which to fine companies that damage bird populations.

Large, long-beaked bird covered in oil being held by a white-coated woman.
An oil-soaked pelican is treated after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Image via International Bird Rescue Research Center/ Flickr.

The changes, which have been described as Trump’s “parting gift” to the oil industry, were initiated by the Trump Administration in 2017. Now they have been finalized, despite having been struck down by a federal district court in Southern New York in August 2020.

Audubon Society’s policy manager, Erik Schneider, told GlacierHub:

It is deeply alarming that the Trump administration decided to ignore the courts. It is really a jaw-dropping abdication of responsibility by the Interior Department under the Trump administration.

The timing of the evisceration of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act couldn’t be worse. A report in Science published last year showed that almost 3 billion breeding birds have disappeared from North America since 1970. That’s a population loss of 29% in the last 50 years. Today, climate change is posing an unprecedented risk to bird numbers and it is estimated that if we maintain our current warming trajectory, more than 65% of North America’s bird species will be at risk of extinction by 2100. Many of the protected birds, like the osprey, snowy owl, Arctic tern and peregrine falcon, breed in glaciated areas or along rivers fed by glacial meltwater, and are already reeling from habitat loss. Schneider said:

We need to be doing much more to protect and conserve birds. Maintaining protections that have been in place for decades is only the minimum if we’re going to recover populations, so it’s critical that these protections are restored.

Tiny bird in the distance perched on a twig amid leafy branches.
A golden-winged warbler, a species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Image via CheepShot/ Flickr.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects more than 1,000 species of birds across the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and Mexico. The species protected include beloved birds such as the Atlantic puffin, American flamingo, bald eagle and Arctic loon. This law isn’t the only bird protection that the Trump administration has tampered with, though. Just this week, the administration cut protected habitat for the soon-to-be-endangered northern spotted owl by millions of acres, including forested areas near glacier peaks in Washington (Mt. Baker, Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier), Oregon (Mt. Hood) and California (Mt. Shasta). This loss is a major setback for a bird whose population is dwindling.

There’s still time to preserve this landmark conservation act. The changes made don’t go into effect for 30 days, meaning that if the incoming Biden administration acts quickly they could overturn the changes before they are finalized. Schneider said:

I hope the Biden administration takes swift action to restore the [Migratory Bird Treaty Act] and reinstate bird protections. In doing so, the Interior Department can ensure that it carries out its core obligations, and regain a critical tool to help meet its biodiversity goals.

Time is ticking for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In the meantime, the birds around us hang in the balance. Schneider said:

It is a great joy to see a bird like the golden-winged warbler on a beautiful morning during spring migration.It is disheartening that this species is one that has declined dramatically in recent decades. However, I’m confident that these protections will be restored, and we will help ensure that our bird populations continue to provide joy, inspiration, and more, for the next generations.

Bottom line: On January 5, 2021, the Trump administration demolished the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a law that protects migratory birds, putting over 1,000 species at risk. The Biden administration can still salvage it, but only if they act swiftly.

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January 24, 2021

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