Former Department of Interior officials object to recent Trump administration ruling on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

(audubon.org)

On late Friday afternoon, Dec. 22, the Interior Department issued a legal memo ruling that businesses that accidentally kill nongame migratory birds during their operations are not violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Per this fine piece at Bloomberg, it reverses an Obama-era view of the law, so the administration maintains it won’t prosecute oil-drillers, wind-farm developers and others who accidentally kill migratory birds.

In the news business, we call a late Friday afternoon bombshell from a state or federal agency a news dump. The MBTA decision actually didn’t receive much immediate attention because the focus locally was on another announcement that afternoon: the administration reaffirming Twin Metals’ right to renew two federal mineral leases in northeast Minnesota.

Within a few days, however, the MBTA ruling, written by Daniel Jorjani, a deputy solicitor in the U.S. Department of the Interior, received condemnation from several outdoors and conservation groups, including the Audubon Society. Then yesterday, 17 past Interior department officials sent a blunt letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke pointing out that the Dec. 22 action runs counter to decades of legal precedent and wildlife protection. In the two-page letter, they outlined their concerns about what they consider efforts to weaken the important conservation law. Fourteen key members of Congress also received the letter. (To view the letter, click here.)

“This legal opinion is contrary to the long-standing interpretation by every administration (Republican and Democrat) since at least the 1970s, who held that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act strictly prohibits the unregulated killing of birds,” the signatories wrote.

The signees, which include four past directors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a couple of former deputy directors of Interior, noted that the solicitor’s opinion required 41 pages to turn the MBTA’s straightforward language into a conclusion “that the killing of migratory birds violates the act only when ‘the actor [is] engaged in an activity the object of which was to render an animal subject to human control.’”

Passed in 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a good law, one that Congress probably would be incapable of passing today. The extinction of the passenger pigeon and exploitation of birds for their eggs (collecting and food) and feathers for ridiculous hats were issues that brought about the Act. Today, when you’re outside and randomly see a great blue heron in a neighborhood wetland or a bald eagle or sandhill crane flying overhead, that’s not an accident. You can thank the MBTA.

Like the folks who signed the letter, I fall squarely into the camp of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” on the matter of the MBTA. The greatest economy the world has ever know occurred in the United States for a century after its passage, so I don’t think this law qualifies as overburden-some government regulation. Bottom line, it’s another disappointing environmental/conservation decision from the Trump administration.

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