The Migratory Bird Treaty Act: 100 years of conservation in jeopardy

In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was signed by the United States and Great Britain/Canada. For a century, this law has been central to comprehensive bird conservation efforts throughout North America and beyond. It is one of the first wildlife protection laws in America and one of the National Audubon Society’s first big successes.

Although it was not soon enough to save the likes of the Labrador Duck, Carolina Parakeet or Passenger Pigeon, from extinction, it has unquestionably saved hundreds of millions of birds. Snowy Egrets, Wood Ducks and Sandhill Cranes still exist because of MBTA. We are able to better enjoy a rich diversity of migratory birds through the yearly cycle of seasons in Plumas County because of the MBTA.

Sadly, this law and so many others designed to preserve some semblance of a whole, healthy planet for future generations is now in peril and in need of your support.

The law was necessary to curb some of the excesses of the early 1900s. Huge numbers of birds were being killed simply for feathers to decorate hats. Countless more were killed by hunters, but for sport rather than food. Contests based on number killed, with no concern for species or rarity, were common. As an alternative to one such hunt — the Christmas “Side Hunt” — in 1900 the fledgling Audubon Society initiated what has become the annual Christmas Bird Count, an international event critical to tracking bird populations and migrating habits.

Specifically, the law provides that it is “…unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest or egg of any such bird. …” Exceptions include to accommodate regulated hunting seasons for game birds, to offer additional protection for endangered species, and to allow Native American tribes to collect feathers from protected species for ceremonial purposes.

Most people are not even aware of the existence of the MBTA and it has quietly succeeded with little controversy for generations. But loss of habitat, massive building projects and modern technology, particularly in the realm of energy extraction and production have created unsurmountable obstacles for our avian friends. Too often we humans function as exploiters rather than stewards of earth’s bounty. We tend to proceed with what is most convenient or expedient for ourselves as we alter the planet to accommodate our immediate needs and desires. We often overlook how our alterations to the earth’s water, air and surface adversely affect other living things and, ultimately, our own future.

In the case of birds, power lines and communication towers are often erected with no regard for historic flyways or with no built in deterrents for birds coming in contact with dangerous surfaces. The result is between 30 and 175 million bird deaths per year, depending on who is compiling the data.

Waste ponds from oil drilling and fracking account for a million annual deaths. The sludge, which is equally toxic for people and other animals as well, could be shielded for minimal loss of profit by the extracting companies.

Wind generators add another half-million fatalities. Huge rotors knock migrating fowl to their deaths while alternative designs and safeguards that could reduce the carnage already exist. Solar arrays can also be deadly: comprehensive death totals are hard to find.

These deaths are overwhelmingly unnecessary and threaten the viability of many of the 1,000+ species covered by the law. Federal Fish and Game efforts in the last decade have produced considerable cooperation with energy companies. Nets, shields, insulators, design modifications and other common sense measures have made the skies safer for birds without creating financial hardship for the companies.

Near the end of the Obama presidency, in response to these massive new threats to wildlife, MBTA language that it was illegal to “take” birds was interpreted to include accidental or non-intended (but deliberate via neglect) bird fatalities. Some energy producers ended up in court, where judges were inconsistent in meting out penalties for bird deaths that could be characterized as incidental or accidental, even if they were preventable. A plan to bring consistency to enforcement and adjudication of unplanned but preventable bird kills was not yet finalized when Obama’s terms expired.

In December of last year, the Trump administration brought forth a legal memo written by Daniel Jarjani, a long-time advisor to energy billionaire Charles Koch. The memo states that the MBTA applies only to deliberate actions that kill birds, like poaching, not to energy companies or businesses that cause death unintentionally (that is to say, in pursuit of all-important profit, with little concern for collateral damage).

This decision has grave implications for birds and those who value and enjoy them, and for communities where bird watching and bird festivals are important to local economies.

Without safeguards, profit motive will “trump” conservation and the future for many bird species will become unnecessarily bleak. As an interpretive opinion, the memo is not subject to hearings or citizen input. But we can still contact our Congressional representatives: Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Kamala Harris, and Representative Doug LaMalfa to oppose any legislation that would weaken the law or support the memo, or to advocate for support for the law.

Finally, all readers are welcome to become involved with the Plumas Audubon Society and its efforts to promote the well-being of birds as well as a healthier, safer, more diverse environment for us all. This is of particular urgency as so many safeguards are being abruptly, systematically and ignorantly dismantled after decades of struggle to bring enlightened values of stewardship to natural resource management. Go to plumasaudubon.org for more information.

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