Tuesday, May 29, 2018

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will no longer fine industries (mainly oil and gas) for killing migratory birds; suit filed

A pied-billed grebe that later died after landing
in a pond of fracking waste. (Photo by Aviary
Conservation Center of Appalachia
For the past century, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has made it illegal to hunt, catch, kill, possess, import or export any migratory bird, including its feathers, nests or eggs without the proper permit. But in late 2017 the Trump administration in effect changed the law, announcing that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would no longer levy penalties for "incidental take" of migratory birds, Brittany Patterson reports for Ohio Valley ReSource, a public-media partnership.

"Incidental take" happens when birds are accidentally killed by things like power lines, wind turbines, or the oil or gas ponds with toxic drilling fluids. FWS has sometimes issued fines, but also worked with industries to minimize risk by installing netting over ponds, for example. About 90 percent of the cases tracked by the National Audubon Society have been related to the oil and gas industry.

Many industry groups applauded the move; Lowell Rothschild, an environmental lawyer with the law firm Bracewell, which has represented oil and gas industries for more than 20 years, told Petterson the law was too broad and is "difficult to comply with and it's also difficult to equitably administer." Environmental and conservation groups disagreed, saying that the ability to assess fines over incidental take has forced companies to make changes that could protect birds. On May 24 a coalition of environmental groups filed suit, challenging the change to the law. The plaintiffs include the Audubon Society, the American Bird Conservancy, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife.

"Migratory birds are important ecological and economic drivers," Patterson reports. "Each year, birders spend an estimated $41 billion on trips and equipment. Birds are the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine,’ and also literal ones. As ecological indicator species they inform us when environmental conditions have changed."

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