US to resume enforcement of unlawful bird deaths by industry

FILE – In this July 15, 2021, file photo Pelicans take flight in the Salton Sea on the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, in Calipatria, Calif. The Biden administration on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, said it is drafting rules to govern the killing of wild birds by industry and will resume enforcement actions against companies responsible for deaths that could have been prevented. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Biden administration said Wednesday it will draft rules to govern the killing of wild birds by industry and resume enforcement actions against companies responsible for deaths that could have been prevented, a longstanding practice that ended under President Donald Trump.

The move came as North American bird numbers have plummeted in recent decades. That decline was punctuated by news Wednesday that the famed ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 other species of flora and fauna have gone extinct.

Conservation groups, which have urged President Joe Biden to take stronger action to protect wildlife, said the planned rules were urgently needed to hold companies accountable for bird deaths.

But the administration got immediate pushback from the oil industry, which has been subject to some of the most high-profile prosecutions under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Most notable was a $100 million settlement by energy company BP, after government investigators concluded the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill killed about 100,000 birds.

The Trump administration ended enforcement against companies for accidental bird deaths in 2017, following pressure from oil companies, utilities and other industries.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America said resuming prosecutions would harm businesses that killed birds through no fault of their own. Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, top-ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said the Biden administration seemed intent on making government “as heavy-handed as possible.”

Federal officials pledged to be judicious in prosecuting violations of the century-old bird law. Enforcement will be reserved for cases where companies could have foreseen bird deaths but did not take steps to avoid them, said Jerome Ford, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assistant director for migratory birds.

The new rule would be prepared over the next year.

In crafting the regulations, Ford said officials would look at a wide range of causes — from collisions with glass buildings, power lines and vehicles, to chemical poisonings and birds killed in oil pits. Hundreds of millions of birds die annually due to industry causes, according to government officials and researchers.

“We’ve lost almost 3 billion birds in the last 50 years,” Ford said. “We want to create a commonsense approach that works to both conserve birds and provide regulatory certainty to industry.”

Under then-President Barack Obama, the Interior Department started to develop a permitting system that would have allowed industry to kill limited numbers of birds, but the work was not finished before the Democrat left office.

The American Bird Conservancy said a permit program would compel companies to take measures such as installing screens to keep birds out of oil pits and turning off or altering telecommunication tower lights to reduce collisions, according to the conservancy.

“It’s that deer in the headlights situation: The birds are attracted and then disoriented” and collide with the towers, said conservancy spokesperson Jordan Rutter.

Trump’s ending of prosecutions was among dozens of environmental actions by the Republican that Biden ordered reconsidered on his first day in office. Former federal officials, environmental groups and Democrats in Congress said many of the Trump rules were aimed at benefiting private industry at the expense of conservation.

More than 1,000 North American bird species are covered by the treaty — from fast-flying peregrine falcons to tiny songbirds and more than 20 owl species. Non-native species and some game birds, like wild turkeys, are not on the list.

Former federal officials and some scientists had said billions more birds could have died in coming decades under Trump’s rule.

Researchers have said that cats in the U.S. kill the most birds — more than 2 billion a year.

In documents released with Wednesday’s proposal, Interior officials said a future permitting system could include exemptions for non-commercial activities or “homeowner activities,” but did not define them.

Besides the BP case, hundreds of enforcement cases — targeting utilities, oil companies and wind energy developers — resulted in criminal fines and civil penalties totaling $5.8 million between 2010 and 2018.

Enforcement will resume once Wednesday’s action goes into effect after 60 days, officials said.

Relatively few enforcement cases end with prosecutions because most companies are willing to take measures to address hazards that their operations may pose to birds, according to wildlife officials.

Courts have been split on whether companies can be prosecuted for unintentional bird deaths.

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