What Happened to the Migratory Bird Treat Act?
Regulations Aren’t That Bad
by Carole Jorgensen
If you ask the average person if they want more regulations, most would answer “no”. Recently elected leaders, especially in Montana, campaigned on reduced regulation. Perhaps the question should be different. Would you prefer to pay billions of dollars to replace the free services provided by birds? Would you like to pay more for fruit, grains and vegetables that have more pesticides? Are you willing to tolerate additional health risks and deaths to avoid some costs of life-saving regulations?
As of May 2020, the Trump administration has rolled back over 100 environmental rules and regulations. See the list: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks-list.html
The EPA evaluated costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act from 1970 to 1990. It found that total costs over that time period were roughly $500 billion and also found that a middle-range estimate of the health and other benefits from cleaner air was $22 trillion—about 44 times higher than the costs. This analysis did NOT include the economic benefits of the ecological contributions of birds. https://opentextbc.ca/principlesofeconomics2eopenstax/chapter/the-benefits-and-costs-of-u-s-environmental-laws/
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (Act) has been “reinterpreted” to drop protections for unintended bird deaths resulting from actions such as powerlines, mines, oil and gas development (and spills), roads and other activities that would “incidentally” kill birds. The Act had involved processes where the USFWS would negotiate with project proponents to reduce the impacts of their projects on birds. The resultant changes to the projects allowed the project to proceed but included seasonal restrictions, minor modifications of routes and boundaries of projects (such as to avoid breeding areas), or changes to projects to avoid electrocutions, poisonings etc. When an action occurred that killed many birds, such as oil spills or mining wastes, fines were imposed, and the fines were used to mitigate the losses to the extent possible. The changes proposed by the Administration drops the Incidental take provisions of the Act. D
espite many lawsuits protecting the long-term incidental take interpretation, the Administration is proceeding with eliminating the protections in an unprecedented EIS process that is short (decision expected by the end of Dec. 2020) and has no comment period. Other proposed (and implemented) changes have stopped enforcement of clean air and clean water regulations. In addition to reducing regulations, the Administration refused to enforce the MBTA. The Administration refused to fine Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield, the owners of the Berkeley Pit, for the 3,000 snow geese that died in the mine’s toxic waters, leaving tax payers to pay the consequences of those bird losses. https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.6/infographic-who-wins-and-who-loses-with-these-4-regulatory-rollbacks
As of early January 2021, the measure, changes the implementation of the 1918 Act, so that companies that cause the death of birds as a side effect of that action will no longer be fined or prosecuted, including electrocutions, power lines, and “also intentional or even illegal acts, like the spraying of a banned pesticide—as long as birds are not the intended target of the poison.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/05/climate/trump-migratory-bird-protections.html
Despite several court findings saying the changes are not justified, and an appeal from 23 Senators in March requesting the changes be discarded, the Administration has moved forward to remove the incidental take protections under the Act. https://www.epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2020/3/23-senators-urge-the-interior-department-to-reverse-course-on-proposed-changes-to-the-migratory-bird-treaty-act
The new Administration is likely to address the issue, but that will take time and would not occur before many birds are lost to otherwise avoidable mitigations in the accelerated projects being approved before the transfer to a new Administration.
Birds, protected by regulations, offer some real economic benefits. For instance, the estimated cost of replacing Clark’s Nutcrackers’ seed dispersal of whitebark pine is $1,980 to $2,405 per hectare and $11.4 to $13.9 billion across the range of whitebark pines in the U.S. Birds are thought to pollinate between 3 and 5 percent of more than 1,500 species of crop or medicinal plants, three-quarters of which cannot self-pollinate. Birds can reduce the intensity of spruce budworm outbreaks and mitigate damage on spruce tree plantations comparable to effective insecticides. In Washington, avian control of spruce budworm was calculated to be worth at least $1,473 per square kilometer per year. In its lifetime a Barn Owl may eat more than 11,000 mice that would have consumed 13 tons of crops. Providing habitat for predatory birds can reduce populations of over-populations of birds living on or near airports. At airports, raptors can be especially important in keeping away birds that regularly collide with aircraft. The U.S. Air Force paid $200,000 per year for trained Peregrine Falcons to drive away European Starlings, Canada Geese, and other birds around the McGuire Air Force Base. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/analysis-the-economic-value-of-birds/#
Birds reduced insect pest numbers in conventional alfalfa fields by 33%. https://www.wildfarmalliance.org/how_birds_help_farms_who_help_birds
Recent research shows “There is a strong, robust negative association between bird abundance and ambient ozone concentrations in the United States. Regulation reducing ozone precursors has resulted in air quality improvements over the past 4 decades thus stemming the decline in bird populations, and averting the loss of 1.5 billion birds, 20% of current totals.
Environmental policies nominally aimed at humans can also provide substantial benefits to other species. https://www.pnas.org/content/117/49/30900.short
Dropping regulations on ozone productions could significantly add billions more deaths in the future to the recently published losses approaching 3 billion birds, or 29% of 1970 abundance. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/366/6461/120
Environmental regulations are complex, and each decision has consequences. Most were developed following extensive research, financial evaluation (usually NOT considering the economic benefits of birds), and negotiations among affected parties. We often won’t realize the benefits of these regulations until they are stopped. Encourage our leaders to ask the right questions.
To help address the intentional weakening of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, please consider asking your elected leaders to support the Migratory Bird Protection Act. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text