The Trump administration on Tuesday finalized changes to a century-old law protecting most American wild bird species despite warnings that billions of birds could die as a result.
Federal wildlife officials have acknowledged the move could result in more deaths of birds that land in oil pits or collide with power lines or other structures.
A U.S. District Court judge in August had blocked the administration's prior attempt to change how the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is enforced. But urged on by industry groups, the Trump administration has remained adamant that the act has been wielded inappropriately for decades to penalize companies and other entities that kill birds accidentally.
Conservationists said they'll push President-elect Joe Biden to reverse the Interior Department rule, which blocks officials from bringing criminal charges unless birds are specifically targeted for death or injury.
More than 1,000 species are covered under the migratory bird law, and attempts to change the enforcement standards have drawn a sharp backlash from organizations that advocate on behalf of an estimated 46 million U.S. birdwatchers.
Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe and independent scientists have said the change could cause a huge spike in bird deaths — potentially billions of birds in coming decades — at a time when species across North America already are in steep decline.
Industry sources kill an estimated 450 million to 1.1 billion birds annually, out of an overall 7.2 billion birds in North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and recent studies.
The 1918 migratory bird law came after many U.S. bird populations had been decimated by hunting and poaching — much of it for feathers for women’s hats.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said the latest proposal was meant to match up with a 2017 legal decision that effectively ended criminal enforcement under the act during most of Trump’s presidency.
The highest-profile enforcement case bought under the migratory bird act resulted in a $100 million settlement by BP, after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 killed approximately 100,000 birds.
Over the decades, federal courts have been split on whether companies can be prosecuted under the migratory bird law, with appeals courts ruling in favor of industry three times and siding against companies twice.
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