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Defending the Law That Brought Birds Back from the Brink

The Migratory Bird Protection Act reaffirms America’s 100-year commitment to protecting birds

OIL SPILL
© Cheryl Gerber

This blog was written by Stan Senner, Vice President for Bird Conservation at the National Audubon Society. During the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, he was Director of Conservation Science at Ocean Conservancy and helped lead the organization’s response to the disaster.

The Trump administration just announced its latest in a long list of anti-conservation policies. It is proposing a new rule that will gut the bedrock of American bird conservation. Signed into law in 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) has saved millions of birds, and rescued species like the Snowy Egret and Wood Duck that were on a path to extinction.

At the same time, a new bill in Congress that defends MBTA has the bird-lovers at Audubon cheering. In an effort to defend and strengthen the law, a bipartisan group of cosponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), recently introduced H.R. 5552, the Migratory Bird Protection Act. The new bill will reaffirm current law while creating more certainty for business and incentivizing innovation to protect birds.

The fact is, the Administration’s rollback of the MBTA reverses the decades-long positions of previous Republican and Democratic administrations. Under the proposed rule industries get a free pass for killing birds due to hazards such as oil spills and oil waste pits, power line collisions and electrocutions, toxic mining ponds and more. This new bill will once again, in plain language, require industry to take proactive measures to reduce bird deaths.

Tannen Maury_EPA
© Tannen Maury/EPA
The MBTA is an especially important law for protecting birds in our ocean and on our coasts. Without this bedrock law, justice for the death of more than a million birds following the worst marine oil spill in U.S. history would have been out of reach. When the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded nearly 10 years ago, 11 people died aboard the rig and 210 million gallons of oil spread throughout the Gulf of Mexico. As Ocean Conservancy members know all too well, vast oil sheens spread across the Gulf and was even dispersed in the water column. As a result marine and coastal birds like Brown Pelicans, Northern Gannets and Royal Terns wound up covered in oil. At the height of the 2010 nesting season, oil was still washing up on the sandy beaches, mangrove thickets and coastal marshes where tens of thousands of coastal birds were busy incubating eggs and raising their young.

Thanks to the MBTA, BP paid a criminal fine of  $100 million, which along with other funds paid by BP for damaged natural resources, are being used to help conserve birds and their habitats on the Gulf coast and at nesting and resting areas in the interior of the country. Following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Exxon Corporation also paid a large MBTA fine for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of seabirds in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska.

The MBTA has been the key incentivize to encourage industry to work cooperatively with the government to develop and implement practices that save birds, such as covering oil waste pits and flagging power lines. And this new bill comes at a critical time—we’ve lost 3 billion birds in the last 50 years, and Audubon science shows that two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extinction due to climate change.

Pedro Ramirez Jr._USFWS
© Pedro Ramirez Jr./USFWS

Birds bring together people from all walks of life, much like the ocean, so it’s no surprise that the Migratory Bird Protection Act thus far has the support of 175 organizations including Ocean Conservancy. The bill has passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee, and we will be working with our network, our partners and our leaders in Congress to defend America’s most important bird law.

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