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Destroying A Hundred Years of Federal Protection of Migratory Birds: Trump Guts the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Another Koch Brothers’ Production

April 12, 2018

Avocet at Clear Creek Park, South Adams County, Colorado. The rust red coloring of this avocet’s neck and head appears during mating season and disappears again in the late summer when they return to their white coloring. (R. Prince photo)

And of course anything, anything whatsoever that interfers with the profits of the oil industry, whether it is a Middle Eastern government that strikes a hard negotiating stance with energy mulitnationals (Libya, Iraq, Syria) or…or regulations protecting birds (and frankly even that not very effectively) !!…has to bulldozed, eliminated.

 

The Avocets are back. 

Spring, early spring is here in Colorado. It is a special time of year everywhere I suppose, but here between the mountains, foothills and plains a most extraordinary natural symphony of life and color.

Migratory birds are returning. Yesterday (April 9, 2018), walking along Clear Creek, species I hadn’t seen since late October were busy scampering around – avocets, blue-winged and green-winged teals, lesser yellow legs among them. They were a site to see.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about 450,000 avocets exist, mostly in North and Central America. Although their migration patterns are not well-known, they seem to migrate to coastal areas during the winter, returning to more inland lakes and swamps for the warmer months as they have here on the Colorado Front Range. The American Avocet is one of the world’s four avocet species. The American Advocet is the only one of the four with distinct breeding and non-breeding plumages — its grayish-white head and neck feathers become cinnamon in early spring, as pictured here.

There was a time when avocets were found all over the United States, including in the eastern regions, but like so many other species of water and wading birds, their population east of the Great Plains and Mississippi River were essentially exterminated during the great bird hunting epidemic of the late 19th and early 20th century propelled by the market for bird feathers in women’s hats. In response to a considerable public outcry, over the mass slaughter of birds, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed by Congress in 1918. It went into effect during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency(and greatly encouraged by the preliminary campaign led by Theodore Roosevelt). No doubt it slowed the slaughter, resulting in the survival and protection of herons, ibises, egrets (and avocets) although there have been other factors leading to the precipitous decline in bird populations.

Prior to its being gutted by the Trump Administration the Migratory Bird Treaty Act protected more than 1,000 bird species in part because it requires industries implement commonsense best management practices like covering tar pits and marking transmission lines. Until the new interpretation, many other “common sense solutions” reduced “the incidental, wanton killing of millions of birds by such hazards as open oil waste pits, oil spills, unprotected pesticide residues, unmarked transmission lines and lethally situated wind farms.”

Even with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in place, the figures on bird mortality in the United States alone combined by the Audubon Society are staggering:

These figures do not include death as a result of habitat loss, one of the greatest killers of all. For example Avocet feathers no longer adorn women’s hats, but their populations, although stable for the moment,  are likely to be reduced relative to pre-settlement times owing to drastic loss of wetlands.

Background to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918

It isn’t necessary to look any further than to the December 22, 2017 memo gutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 in order to see why it was instituted in the first place and while it is still necessary today. I quote:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bird hunting devastated migratory bird
populations. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”), ” [b ]y the late 1800s, the hunting and shipment of birds for the commercial market (to embellish the platters of elegant restaurants) and the plume trade (to provide feathers to adorn lady’s fancy hats) had taken their toll on many bird species.” The scope of commercial hunting at the turn of the century is hard to overstate. One author, describing hunters descending upon a single pigeon nesting ground, reported “[h]undreds of thousands, indeed millions, of dead birds were shipped out at a wholesale price of fifteen to twenty-five cents a dozen.” Director of the New York Zoological Society and former chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian William Hornaday estimated that ” in a single nine-month period the London market had consumed feathers from nearly 130,000 egrets” and that ” [i]t was a common thing for a rookery of several hundred birds to be attacked by plume hunters, and in two or three days utterly destroyed.” Further, commercial hunting was not limited to traditional game birds-estimates indicated that 50 species of North American birds were hunted for their feathers in 1886. Thus, largely as a result of commercial hunting, several species, such as the Labrador Ducks, Great Auks, Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, and Heath Hens were extinct or nearly so by the end of the 19th century.

The memo must have been written in a hurry. As in this small segment of the 41 page document, misspellings. Add to this the fact that it was released a few days before Christmas, when, for a moment the minds of many were directed away from the politics of humans and birds, it is doesn’t take much to conclude that the Secretary of Interior – a man who arguably should be in prison rather than in office for his policies of destroying environmental regulations – was hoping to sneak this one through. And of course anything, anything whatsoever that interfers with the profits of the oil industry, whether it is a Middle Eastern government that strikes a hard negotiating stance with energy mulitnationals (Libya, Iraq, Syria) or…or regulations protecting birds (and frankly even that not very effectively) !!…has to bulldozed, eliminated.

So what is the memo about?

To boil it down to its essentials, M-37050, entitled “The Migratory Bird Treaty Act Does Not Prohibit Incidental Take” (easily available on-line) rolls back protections for migratory birds that have been in place for a century. It is a legal opinion that the Secretary of Interior, Ryan Zinke, is using to legalize the “unintentional killing of most migratory birds.”

Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as previously interpreted, a utility or oil company could be held criminally responsible for bird deaths resulting from their operations even though they didn’t mean to kill them. The law has been used to hold the energy industry accountable. For example, a portion of the $100 million that Deep Water Horizon was fined by the Federal Government was a result of bird deaths.  According to the new interpretation, bird deaths resulting from such oil spills would not be covered.

It is no secret who lobbied for and benefits from the new interpretation, yet another example of the Trump Administration’s aggressive efforts to remove all federal regulation that might interfere with unrelenting push for corporate profits, at the expense of the environment, nature, etc. This opinion, which the Interior Department has elevated to the level of law, was written by one Daniel Jorjani. Washington Post article notes that “before joining the Trump administration, Jorjani worked as general counsel for Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a project of the billionaire oil executives Charles G. and David H. Koch.” What a coincidence!

This is what happens when libertarian politics – meant to deregulate markets – comes into play.

It is no secret who lobbied for and benefits from the new interpretation, yet another example of the Trump Administration’s aggressive efforts to remove all federal regulation that might interfere with unrelenting push for corporate profits, at the expense of the environment, nature, etc. This opinion, which the Interior Department has elevated to the level of law, was written by one Daniel Jorjani. Washington Post article notes that “before joining the Trump administration, Jorjani worked as general counsel for Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a project of the billionaire oil executives Charles G. and David H. Koch.” What a coincidence!

This is what happens when libertarian politics – meant to deregulate markets – comes into play.

While according to the new interpretation it would still be illegal for an individual hunter (or group thereof) to kill birds to get their feathers – without a permit – the act would no longer apply to industries that inadvertently kill a lot of birds through oil drilling, wind power and communication towers. Given that most bird deaths result from precisely these activities today, both in the USA and worldwide, the new rules – which were instituted by edict, not legislation as is the Trump undemocratic way of doing things – could easily result in dramatic decline in bird populations. These have been in decline even prior to the “new interpretation” – but was a more controlled decline could easily result in a flood of bird death.

As Elizabeth Shogren notes in a January, 2018 on-line article in Grist

For decades, the threat of prosecution gave industries that unintentionally kill a lot of birds an incentive to collaborate with the federal government on minimizing bird deaths. For instance, hundreds of thousands of birds die each year from getting poisoned or trapped in the toxic muck of drilling companies’ wastewater pits. To remedy this, oil and gas companies can store the waste in closed tanks or put nets over their pits to limit the number of deaths.

That incentive for industry to cooperate – however minimal, no need to exaggerate here – with government to protect birds is, according the memo, now dead in the water. The Interior Department will no longer prosecute oil and gas, wind, and solar operators that accidentally kill birds. Not hard to see where all this is headed…and which greedy bastards profit from it in the short run.

 

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