In January, the Trump Administration weakened the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 by removing the act’s prohibition against the killing of birds by industrial activities. According to the new framework, companies would no longer be responsible for practices that only “incidentally” killed birds. A new bipartisan bill, The Migratory Bird Protection Act of 2020, would reintroduce the prohibition against incidental killing of birds.
Given the large declines in songbird populations (North America has lost 1 in 4 birds over the last 50 years according to several long-term studies), maintaining and strengthening legal protections for migratory birds is called for in this current moment. Migratory birds require the unified and coordinated efforts of nations, as well as federal, state, and local government to be maximally effective at protecting birds. Our avian migrants make their home in several geographies.
The U.S. has been, until very recently, a regional leader in this effort to protect migrating birds. The 102-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act has been a successful partnership between the U.S. and several other nations. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is an important pillar of global conservation. Abandoning it, or selectively interpreting it, has the potential to damage adherence by our global partners. It is important that we maintain the integrity of our part of this treaty.
If sharing the planet ethically seems like some mere liberal philosophy, consider this: conservation also makes serious business and general economic sense. The conservation of wild places for hunting generates about 700,000 jobs nationwide and hunters spend nearly $22.1 billion in local economies annually, according to the California Fish and Wildlife Service. Not all of that will be bird-specific spending, but turkey, grouse, quail, and duck hunting clearly generate billions annually. Hunting generates jobs and revenue.
Birdwatching is also a perhaps unexpected economic powerhouse. Bird watchers spend, annually $41 billion on trips and equipment, and local economies benefit from $14.9 billion a year spent on food, lodging and transportation, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Furthermore, birds are also integral in the performance of ecosystem services (services rendered to humanity for free which we would otherwise have to pay for). Ecosystem services can fall into four basic categories, provisioning services (food, feathers etc.), regulating services (by acting as pollinators, pest control agents or decomposers), cultural services (recreational, aesthetic or spiritual services), and supporting services (soil formation, nutrient cycling) according to “ Why Birds Matter: Avian Ecological Function and Ecosystems Services.” The general economic benefits of conservation don’t accrue for only a few small narrow interests but flow outward into the broader economy.
In addition to the clear economic advantages to conservation minded policy, Americans support conservation. Rural Americans, urban Americans, Democratic and Republican citizens also broadly support conservation and climate regulation. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, the majority of Americans want the government to do more to protect the environment; 62 percent of respondents said the government is doing too little on environmental issues. The majority of respondents prioritize the environment, even if it limits economic growth. (Though there is no reason why economic growth and environmental regulation should be mutually exclusive endeavors.)
Given the economics and the public’s general attitudes and support of conservation and environmental protections, it is fair to ask why the interests and bottom lines of a handful companies should be privileged over the interests and economics of local communities? Relaxing the requirements to limit incidental killing and eliminating the need to do environmental assessment may save a company some money, but only at the potential expense of a much wider community.
It is important, now more than perhaps any time since the enactment of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, to strengthen, not weaken the act. We cannot allow reckless incidental take of this hemisphere’s birds. Incidental killing of birds accounts for at least a quarter of bird deaths and represents the most avoidable source of mortality birds face. It is important to fight the Trump Administration’s attempts to roll back the legislative teeth of the act. One way we can do that is by supporting with our votes H.R. 5552, The Migratory Bird Protection Act. This regulatory law will reinstate the proscriptions against incidental take by industry and require environmental assessments prior to major industrial projects.
Max Driffill of Sebec is an amateur ornithologist and naturalist.