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Incidental Killings Of Migratory Birds Will Go Unpunished For Now


When is it illegal to kill a bird? The Biden administration is moving to restore protections for migratory birds, one of the many environmental rollbacks under former President Trump. NPR's Nathan Rott has more.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: At more than a hundred years old, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is one of the country's oldest environmental laws. It protects more than a thousand species of migratory birds, everything from the aptly named red-eyed Vireo...


ROTT: ..To the desert-dwelling cactus wren.


ROTT: For decades, the act has prohibited the killing of birds, whether it happened on purpose through, say, poaching, or by accident. But the Trump administration axed that last part, saying for a bird killing to be illegal, it had to be intentional. Katie Umekubo, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that leaves birds vulnerable.

KATIE UMEKUBO: Basically, all of the industrial-type takes of migratory birds, like oil spills...

ROTT: Or wind turbines.

UMEKUBO: ...Or different types of pesticides, applications - the agency could no longer enforce against those types of actions once that opinion was put in place.

ROTT: So take something like the BP oil spill, an accident which is believed to have killed hundreds of thousands of birds in 2010. The company was fined $100 million under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

UMEKUBO: Under the Trump administration, BP could no longer be fined or prosecuted for that.

ROTT: Trump's Interior Department was sued for the change and lost, but they still finalized a rule making that law in the last week of the administration. Now the Biden administration is taking steps to change it back. But Sarah Greenberger of the National Audubon Society says that change will take time.

SARAH GREENBERGER: You know, it's a formal rulemaking process. It takes more than a year in most cases.

ROTT: In the meantime, incidental killings of migratory birds will go unpunished. And time matters. A recent study found that North America has lost more than a quarter of its bird population in the last 50 years.

GREENBERGER: And Audubon has done our own science that says two-thirds of species are at risk of extinction moving forward because of climate change.

ROTT: All the more reason, she says, to reinstate protections as fast as the administration can. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KONICHIWA'S "CHEQUERBOARD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.