Monday, August 10, 2020
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US to stop prosecuting accidental bird deaths

The Trump administration reversed an enforcement policy last month that went largely unnoticed: they decided that accidentally killing birds, in up-till-now violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of about a hundred years ago, would no longer be considered illegal, Bloomberg News reported.

Bar-headed goose (Anser indicus) in flight

Everything from eagles that fly into wind turbines to power lines that zap a duck will now result in no fines or imprisonment for those responsible for the death of the birds.

“It reverses decades of precedent over 20 administrations,” the news service quoted Sarah Greenberger, the National Audubon Society’s vice president of conservation policy, as saying. “It’s a shocking step to break with that kind of tradition, and it’s of great concern.”

Several US courts have, over the years, questioned whether the law includes so-called “incidental takes,” or the accidental yet foreseeable death of birds from industrial activity. Still, President Barack Obama’s outgoing Interior Department solicitor, Hilary Tompkins, issued a memo in January 2017, saying all forms of incidental take were prohibited under the MBTA, citing the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s interpretation and decades of successful prosecutions.

But that guidance was rescinded by President Donald Trump in February, pending a review. And then, on December 22, the US Interior Department issued a completely new memo reaching the opposite conclusion:

  • It relied, in part, on the aforementioned skepticism of some US court rulings.
  • The author argued that the word “take” in the law refers to a willful act.
  • Prosecuting companies for incidental takes put an undue burden on them.

“Interpreting the MBTA to apply to incidental or accidental actions hangs the sword of Damocles over a host of otherwise lawful and productive actions,” wrote Daniel Jorjani, the top lawyer at the Interior Department and a former adviser to the Koch brothers.

The Trump administration hasn’t made many friends among environmentally conscious government workers or volunteers during the first year of his presidency. Nine of the 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board, a civilian group that serves to advise the Secretary of the Interior about the National Parks, resigned Monday, the Washington Post reported. Their resignations were said to be in protest of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s refusal to meet with them after they had been waiting almost an entire year during the transition.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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