The Trump administration just finalised yet another example of last-minute despicable, deregulatory rule changes. On Tuesday, the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service gutted one of the oldest conservation laws on the federal books: protections for migratory birds.
The rule changes the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was first passed in 1918, by removing penalties for companies whose operations accidentally harm or kill the animals. It will now apply only when birds are killed intentionally, exempting habitat destroying activities like oil and gas development, power line use, and pesticide application unless an explicit intent to kill birds can be proven.
No one will gain more from this rule change than Big Oil. According to an analysis from the bird conservation nonprofit the National Audubon Society, 90% of all incidental violations of the act were brought against fossil fuel companies for pollution from oil waste pits and tanks. And 97% of all fines issued under the act were due to two horrific oil spills, BP’s Deepwater Horizon off Louisiana’s coast in 2010 and the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.
The act, which was originally crafted to protect birds from the poaching and hunting industry, has even been used to bring criminal charges against officials for accidentally killing birds. like in 2011 when the Obama administration charged seven North Dakota oil companies for unintentionally killing 28 birds. Under the changed rule, that could never have happened.
The decision is coming at the worst possible time for migratory bird populations, which are already in crisis. A 2019 study found that the U.S. lost more than 30% of its birds since 1970, mostly due to habitat deterioration, pollution, and changes due to the climate crisis, all problems which the fossil fuel sector has exacerbated. Months later, another report found that migratory birds in particular are failing to adapt to climactic changes caused by global warming. And just this past autumn, hundreds of thousands of migrating finches, flycatchers, and other species dropped dead in the south, likely having starved to death due to environmental degradation.
“This brutal blow hits America’s birds when many populations are already plummeting, so it’s really the last thing they need,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Centre for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “Trump officials are giving oil companies and other polluters a licence to kill birds. Vast numbers of birds will be electrocuted by power lines, drowned in oil waste pits and killed in other easily preventable ways.”
Though migratory birds will suffer the most direct harm as a result of the change, this is bad news for all of us. These birds play important roles in their ecosystems, keeping bug populations in check and pollinating plants. Human beings rely on those processes for food production, disease control, and the maintenance of plants that provide us with clean air, so we’ll feel the impacts of bird decline, too.
Thankfully, the Biden administration can overturn the rule change. The Centre for Biological Diversity has also threatened to sue the administration over it.
“The courts have the power to, once again, strike down this reckless attack on one of America’s oldest and most important conservation laws,” said Greenwald.