Conservationists Worry Federal Deregulation Could Pose Threat To Migratory Birds

Apr 17, 2018

A rollback of federal rules on migratory birds has conservationists worried. The federal government has announced it will stop prosecuting companies that accidentally kill species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They fear the changes could pave the way for industrial developments that pose a threat to the species in Iowa.

Snow geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, NM.
Credit John Fowler via flickr creative commons / https://www.flickr.com/photos/snowpeak/27057517509/

The hundred-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act came about after over-harvesting drove some birds, including the passenger pigeon, to extinction. The law now protects over 1000 species, from the struggling blue-footed booby to the more common blackbird and crow. Iowa State University wildlife biologist and assistant professor Adam Janke at Iowa State University says the MBTA is a powerful conservation tool.

"Because of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act we saw the recovery of a lot of birds that would probably otherwise have been driven to extinction or been so rare to have been functionally extinct," Janke said.

Over time, the application of the MBTA expanded, allowing the federal government to prosecute corporations for inadvertently killing the animals. Corporations have been convicted after birds died from coming into contact with their power lines, oil drilling equipment and pesticides. Now the Department of the Interior says the scope of the law is too broad, and will only apply to "direct and affirmative purposeful actions" that reduce migratory birds, their eggs, or their nests, by killing or capturing.

The law encouraged oil, energy and telecommunications developers to work with conservationists to lower their impact on migratory bird habitat. Janke says wind companies in Iowa have done a good job of siting their turbines to mitigate for these impacts. But he says now that could change.

"There's potential that you could end up with a wind energy complex right next to a major migratory stopover location for birds." - ISU Wildlife Biologist Adam Janke

“There's potential that you could end up with a wind energy complex right next to a major migratory stopover location for birds. Because under this interpretation of the law there may not be regulatory mechanism to discourage that,” Janke said.

While wind turbines and other industrial developments do pose a risk, Janke says the greatest threat to birds in Iowa is habitat loss. He says loosening the federal regulations could make the situation worse.

“On top of all those stresses related to habitat loss and habitat degradation, we may add on top of that an unnatural mortality source associated with transmission lines or wind turbines or things like that in some locations,” Janke said.

But industry is not the only threat to migratory birds. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, cats alone are estimated to kill 1.85 billion birds every year, with building and car collision deaths numbering in the hundreds of millions annually. By comparison, wind turbines and oil pits account for hundreds of thousands of deaths. 

The Department of Interior says the problem is they can't legally justify prosecuting the incidental deaths of birds from wind turbines and not prosecute deaths related to car or building collisions, or cats. That broad application, the DOI writes, "would lead to absurd results" and turn "the vast majority of Americans into potential criminals."  Therefore, the department will be focusing on the intentional pursuing, hunting, taking, capturing, or killing of the birds.