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100 Years of Migratory Bird Protections at Risk, Groups Warn

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Nevada is home to millions of acres of important bird habitat. (Lip Kee/ Flickr)
Nevada is home to millions of acres of important bird habitat. (Lip Kee/ Flickr)
 By Katherine Davis-YoungContact
July 6, 2018

CARSON CITY, Nev. – This week marks 100 years since the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – or MBTA – and conservation groups want the Trump administration to respect and enforce the law.

Signed in 1918, the law made it illegal to pursue, hunt, take or capture migratory birds. Last December, the Interior Department rescinded Obama-era guidelines on prosecution of companies when their operations cause bird deaths – and issued new ones, that don't prosecute companies unless they "intentionally put birds under human control."

Bob Dreher, senior vice president for conservation programs with Defenders of Wildlife, says that leaves industries without any liability for the bird deaths they cause.

"They don't have to do anything in order to avoid the killing of migratory birds, even though they know that it will occur from what they're doing, and even though there might be reasonable and cost-effective things they could do to avoid killing birds," says Dreher.

Nevada is home to more than six million acres of important areas for birds, according to the Audubon Society. But the fear is that migratory birds are at risk if the MBTA is not enforced. The government used the law to prosecute BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010, and the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

It has also been used to force oil companies to cover their oil waste ponds, after it was discovered an estimated two million birds a year were dying in open waste pits. But a Trump administration spokesman said the guidelines "criminalized all actions that killed migratory birds, whether purposeful or not," and called the new rules a "victory over the regulatory state."

Dreher says the MBTA is one of the oldest federal conservation laws, and without enforcement, birds will die.

"It's been in place doing its job for 100 years, and what this administration does is to cut the heart out from it," says Dreher.

Defenders of Wildlife, the National Audubon Society, and several other environmental groups have filed a lawsuit to challenge the rule changes.

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