Court protects Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Environmental groups in the US applaud court ruling against Trump's attempt to undermine Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Most bird deaths are due to human development from sectors such as construction, transportation and energy. Oil spills and power line collisions kill millions of birds every year.

The Trump administration's rollback of vital environmental initiatives has been a trend since the beginning of his time in office.

From reversing laws on automobile emissions and fuel standards to withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, it comes as no surprise that the administration also attempted to reinterpret a vital bird protection act. 

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted in 1918. A federal judge in New York ruled against the Trump administration's reinterpretation of this act, citing that intent does not determine impact.


If this reinterpretation became policy, it would have dire consequences for wildlife. For example, in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed over a million birds.

If the Migratory Bird Treaty Act had not been in place, the oil company would have avoided $100 million in fines toward migratory bird conservation and other wetland protection programs. 

The opinion piece proposed by the Trump administration stated that the oil and gas industry was not responsible for the indirect effects of its actions on birds, as long as it was not purposefully attempting to harm them.

The court argued that this interpretation would allow the industry to do whatever it wants to the environment. Ultimately, the opinion piece was overturned and protections were re-instituted against industry — even if bird deaths resulted from incidental take. 

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is one of the oldest legal wildlife protections in the United States. Birds are heavily affected by human activity, especially due to land development and the fossil fuel industry. 

Most bird deaths are due to human development from sectors such as construction, transportation and energy. Oil spills and power line collisions kill millions of birds every year.


While the hunting and trapping of birds and other wild animals has decreased in the last few decades, the incidental effects of industries like manufacturing and mining are wreaking havoc on avian ecosystems. Scientists estimate that since 1970, the bird population in the United States has fallen by 29 percent, which is approximately three billion birds. 

Despite these dark statistics, the National Audubon Society estimates that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has prevented the deaths of millions of birds since its enactment in 1918. 

The law has expanded in recent years to include special protections for certain species, such as hawks and eagles. The act has also extended its international scope, forming treaties with Mexico, Russia and Japan that play a crucial role in protecting birds who migrate around the world and across the equator.

While the motivations behind the original Migratory Bird Treaty Act were based on the need to protect wild birds from illegal trade and hunting, the law is now vital to protecting bird species from incidental killings due to industry operations.

Most bird deaths are due to human development from sectors such as construction, transportation and energy. Oil spills and power line collisions kill millions of birds every year.


The legal opinion piece was written by a member of the Department of the Interior, Daniel Jorjani, who has previously worked for the oil and gas behemoth Koch Industries. 

Jorjani was elected to the position of Solicitor of the Department of the Interior in September 2019, a role that includes managing over 300 attorneys who are responsible for handling parks, ethics, water and energy and minerals. 

Jorjani's argument was put forth in a document with the subject line: "The Migratory Bird Treaty Act Does Not Prohibit Incidental Take." Disputing the definition of incidental take is the core of Jorjani's argument.

In the introduction, Jorjani argues that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act threatens industries that engage in lawful actions if they accidentally kill birds.


The document closes with criticism of the 1970s inclusion by federal prosecutors that adopted criminal charges against oil, gas, chemical and mining companies whose actions resulted in incidental bird deaths. 

Less than a year after Jorjani's election to Solicitor of the Department of the Interior, a federal judge in Manhattan struck down Jorjani's interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and incidental take. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups applauded the decision since the reinterpretation would have allowed industries like mining, oil and timber to destroy ecosystems without punishment.

The court decision is one of many upholding environmental protections that are being threatened under the Trump administration.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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