US to resume enforcement of unlawful bird deaths by industry
Billings, Mont. — The Biden administration said Wednesday it will draft rules to govern the killing of wild birds by industry and resume enforcement actions against companies responsible for deaths that could have been prevented, a longstanding practice that ended under President Donald Trump.
The move came as North American bird numbers have plummeted drastically in recent decades. That decline was punctuated by news Wednesday that the famed ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 other species have gone extinct.
Conservation groups, which have urged President Joe Biden to take stronger action to protect wildlife, said the planned rules were urgently needed to hold companies accountable for bird deaths.
But the administration's announcement got immediate pushback from the oil industry, which has been subject to some of the most high-profile prosecutions under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Most notable was a $100 million settlement by energy company BP, after government investigators concluded the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill killed about 100,000 birds.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America said resuming prosecutions would harm businesses that killed birds “through no fault of their own.”
“This is not a case of punishing bad actors, but rather a situation where companies are set up for failure," said Mallori Miller, the oil industry group's vice president for public relations.
Federal officials pledged to be judicious in enforcing violations of the century-old bird law.
Enforcement will be reserved for cases where companies could have foreseen bird deaths but did not take steps to avoid them, said Jerome Ford, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assistant director for migratory birds.
In crafting the new rule, Ford said officials would look at a wide range of causes of death — from collisions with glass buildings, power lines and vehicles, to chemical poisonings and birds killed in oil pits. Hundreds of millions of birds die annually from such causes, according to government officials and researchers.
“We've lost almost 3 billion birds in the last 50 years,” Ford said. “We want to create a common sense approach that works to both conserve birds and provide regulatory certainty to industry."
The migratory bird policy was among dozens of Trump-era environmental actions Biden ordered reconsidered on his first day in office. Former federal officials, environmental groups and Democrats in Congress said many of the Trump rules were aimed at benefiting private industry at the expense of conservation.
More than 1,000 North American bird species are covered by the treaty — from fast-flying peregrine falcon to tiny songbirds and more than 20 owl species. Non-native species and some game birds, like wild turkeys, are not on the list.
Former federal officials and some scientists had said billions more birds could have died in coming decades under Trump’s rule.
Researchers have said that cats in the U.S. kill the most birds — more than 2 billion a year.
Besides the BP case, hundreds of enforcement cases — targeting utilities, oil companies and wind energy developers — resulted in criminal fines and civil penalties totaling $5.8 million between 2010 and 2018.
Enforcement will resume after Wednesday’s action goes into effect in 60 days, officials said.
Relatively few enforcement cases end with prosecutions because most companies are willing to take measures to address hazards that their operations may pose to birds, according to wildlife officials.
Courts have been split on whether companies can be prosecuted for unintentional bird deaths.