For a century, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has been one of the best things the country has done to protect birds. There are beautiful species alive today — snowy egrets, sandhill cranes, wood ducks, hundreds of others — because of it.
In 2018, in a black-hearted celebration of the act’s centennial year, the Trump Administration radically reinterpreted it to strip it of most of the protections it offered. It’s a gift to polluters and businesses, murder for the birds
“It’s outrageous,” said Ben Oko, of Ridgefield, the former head of the town’s Conservation Commission and a devoted birder.
To remedy this, U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives this month to restore its original intent and fix it into law.
As of yet, none of the state congressional legislators have signed on as co-sponsors. The Connecticut Audubon Society is trying to get them on board.
People can now go to the society’s website at www.ctaudubon.org and click on the “ What’s New” tab. It will take them to the society’s alert on the new legislation, and give them an easy way to e-mail representative and urge their support.
So far, nearly 700 people have done so.
“There’s a lot going on,” said Patrick Comins, the society’s executive director of recent events in Washington, D.C. “All our representatives and senators are proud environmentalist. The more co-sponsors the better.”
Here is why this is important.
The Migratory Bird Treaty is an international treaty that affords protection to migrating birds throughout the Western Hemisphere.
“It’s actually been one of our more useful regulations,” said Jenny Dickson, director of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s wildlife division. “When birds migrate, they don’t always stop at state lines.”
A fair number of those birds migrate along the Atlantic Flyway, over Connecticut.
“Some of these birds are flying from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia,” said Robert LaFrance. Policy director for Audubon Connecticut, which is part of the National Audubon Society.
And because of new technologies, ornithologists are now able to study bird migration in greater depth.
“We’re finding things out we didn’t know before,” said Jim Arigoni, a conservation biologist at Deer Pond Farm in Sherman, a nature center owned by the Connecticut Audubon Society. “We’re asking questions we never thought of asking before.”
Comins said Congress passed the act in 1918 to stop egg and nest collecting, the slaughter of birds for their feathers used to decorate ladies hats, and hunting wild birds to sell at markets for food.
But over the years, environmental agencies used it to stop industries and construction projects from harming bird life. If a company polluted a pond and the polluted water killed the ducks that swam in it, the company was liable for the damage.
When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in 2010, spewing 4.9 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Migratory Bird Act forced BP, the owner of the well to pay $64 million for bird and habitat restoration efforts.
This damage is serious. The National Audubon Society estimates 175 million birds a year are killed by power lines; another 50 million at communication towers; and 500,000 to 1 million at industrial waste pits.
The Trump Administration however has interpreted the law to regulate only intentional damage to bird life — i.e. if you shoot birds or destroy their nesting habitat to deliberately harm them.
Everything else is considered “incidental” damage and is exempt, according to the Trump administration — oil pits, pesticide use, wind towers, pollution, habitat destruction.
“You could tear down a barn that had nesting barn owls in it and it would be all right as long as you said you didn’t intentionally mean to hurt the birds,” Comins said.
The DEEP’s Dickson said this change makes life difficult for environmental agencies like the DEEP that have to incorporate the Trump Administration’s ruling into what they do.
“How does it impact us? How does it impact our conservation partnerships?” she said. “What does it mean for bird conservation?”
This comes at a time when North American bird life is in peril. Ornithologists now estimate that bird populations in North America have declined by 3 billion birds since 1970.
Comins said, getting Congress to pass new conservation laws isn’t easy. That’s why emails, phone calls, letters, congressional delegations support all helps.
“It’s a marathon,” he said. “Not a sprint.”