Trump Administration Reverses Policy On Protecting Migrating Birds

Feb 4, 2018
Originally published on February 6, 2018 11:06 am

The Trump administration has reversed a key policy for protecting migrating birds. Officials say a century-old federal law is outdated and poses a burden for utilities and energy companies.

Editor's note: An unedited Web version of this story that had been inadvertently published has been removed.

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For a century, most migrating birds in the United States have been protected under federal law. But the Trump administration has quietly changed that policy. Late last year, it reversed a key part of how the law is enforced. Earthfix reporter Courtney Flatt and Jes Burns have this story from Oregon.

JES BURNS, BYLINE: The Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for geese, hawks and ducks in suburban Portland. The bird refuge is essentially fenced-in on all sides, not by chain links, but by power lines owned by Portland General Electric. And birds and power lines don't always mix.

ANDY BIDWELL: Collisions do happen.

BURNS: Utility biologist Andy Bidwell says, a few years back, crews retrofitted the power lines surrounding the refuge to try to cut down on bird deaths, taking measures like covering exposed wires to prevent electrocutions.

BIDWELL: We want to protect birds. Our customers want us to protect birds. And it makes sense for our system as far as reliability and preventing outages.

BURNS: There was also another reason. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the utility could be held criminally responsible for those bird deaths even though they didn't mean to kill them. The law has been used to hold the energy industry accountable - for example, as partial grounds for a $100 million settlement with BP for birds killed during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But no longer.

The Interior Department announced it won't go after these accidental deaths, saying in a statement that doing so goes beyond the original intent of the 1918 law. The department declined an interview request. But the Trump administration has called the threat of prosecution a burden to domestic energy production and development. Dan Rohlf is an environmental law professor at Lewis and Clark College. He says the message to energy developers is clear.

DAN ROHLF: Your facilities are designed to do something else. They're not intended to kill birds. And so if they happen to kill birds, that's just the way it goes.

BURNS: The energy industry has welcomed the shift. But wildlife advocates say the change in interpretation effectively guts the law.

COURTNEY FLATT, BYLINE: I'm Courtney Flatt at the Blue Mountain Wildlife Clinic, where an injured red-tailed hawk is lying across a small exam table. It was electrocuted a week earlier. Lynn Tompkins unwraps a blue bandage from its left wing.

LYNN TOMPKINS: Boy, oh, boy. Here we go. I think the feathers were just stuck together.

FLATT: She flushes blood off the hawk's wound.

TOMPKINS: This particular bird was in very good shape until she got zapped.

FLATT: The federal government estimates many millions of birds are killed every year when they collide with power lines. And several hundred thousand birds are killed by wind turbine blades, which are common along the Columbia River Gorge.

TOMPKINS: We appreciate that we need renewable-resource power development. That is a good thing. But also, the consequences of it need to be looked at.

FLATT: Wind developers have been trying to avoid these consequences and prosecution. They site wind farms away from the paths where birds migrate and shut down turbines during peak migration. Developers say they'll continue to look out for birds despite the recent changes to the law. But environmentalists worry that won't be the case for all energy developers. Bob Sallinger is with the Portland Audubon Society.

BOB SALLINGER: So I think we would see rapid changes in the way that certain industries do business in ways that we'd find devastating to birds.

FLATT: But not keeping birds' safety in mind could be risky. A future administration could just as easily decide to change course again. And the whole issue is still playing out in the courts. They're split on whether killing birds unintentionally should be punished. For NPR News, I'm Courtney Flatt in Pendleton.

BURNS: And I'm Jes Burns in Sherwood, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.