A 2017 Trump administration policy change has severely limited any penalties groups might face for bird deaths across the United States, according to a new report published Tuesday by The New York Times.
The change, part of a series of actions by the Trump administration that have rolled back environmental protections, has had the effect of further endangering bird populations in the United States, which have plummeted by 29% since 1970, a study published by the journal Science in September found.
The memo from the Office of the Solicitor of the US Department of Interior made a change to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918, allowing for the incidental taking or killing of migratory birds, as long as that was not the intent of the action. That enables companies to move eggs, nest or birds themselves, as long as there is another reason for doing it, such as construction or day-to-day business and not the intentional taking or killing of birds.
The MBTA still enforces penalties for the taking or killing of migratory birds, their nests, or their eggs if that is the intent of an action.
The memo, however, argues that the scope of incidental taking was “virtually unlimited” prior to the new interpretation.
It goes on to list various “human-caused threats” to birds that it claims could have been prosecuted under the former interpretation of the MBTA.
“It would also turn every American who owns a cat, drives a car or owns a home – that is to say, the vast majority of Americans – into a potential criminal,” the memo says.
According to emails obtained by the Times, when the Michigan Department of Natural resources emailed the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service seeking clarification if it could cut down trees, they were told “The recent M -Opinion also removes the prohibition to removing trees with active nests as long as the intent of the action is the cutting of the trees (in this case for timber harvest).” The agency did lay out potential ways to limit the damage done to the birds and nests, but noted those actions were “strictly voluntary.”
The Trump administration has frequently rolled back regulations aimed at protecting the environment and curbing the effects of climate change. Among the notable actions this year was the decision in June by the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back an Obama-era plan limiting coal-fired power plant emissions and the revocation of California’s authority in September to set its own vehicle emission standards.
In his fight against wind energy, Trump has repeatedly cited bird deaths from wind turbines. A CNN fact check has found that although hundreds of thousands of birds are killed from collisions with turbines, other energy sources, such as coal, oil and power lines, contribute to millions of avian deaths each year.