US to resume enforcement of unlawful bird deaths by industry

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The Biden administration is drafting rules to control the killing of wild birds by the industry and will resume enforcement action against companies responsible for deaths that could have been prevented.

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Billings, Mont. — The Biden administration said Wednesday it would draft rules to control the killing of wild birds by the industry and resume enforcement action against companies responsible for deaths that could have been prevented, a long time ago. An ongoing practice that ended under President Donald Trump.

The move comes as North American bird numbers have declined drastically in recent decades. That decline was punctuated by news on Wednesday that the famous ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 other species have become extinct.

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But the administration’s announcement met an immediate blow 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, when government investigators concluded that a 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill killed nearly 100,000 birds.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America said resuming prosecution would harm businesses that killed the birds “through no fault of their own.”

“This is not a case of punishing bad actors, but a situation where companies are set up for failure,” said Mallory Miller, vice president of public relations for the oil industry group.

Federal officials vowed to be prudent in enforcing violations of the century-old bird law.

Jerome Ford, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant director for migratory birds, said enforcement would be reserved for cases where companies could have predicted the birds’ deaths but did not take steps to avoid them.

In drafting the new rule, Ford said officials would look at a wide range of causes of death – from collisions with glass buildings, power lines and vehicles to chemical poisoning and birds killed in oil pits. According to government officials and researchers, millions of birds die annually due to such causes.

“We’ve lost about 3 billion birds in the last 50 years,” Ford said. “We want to create a common-sense approach that works to protect birds and provide regulatory certainty to the industry.”

The migratory bird policy was one of dozens of Trump-era environmental actions Biden ordered to be reconsidered on his first day in office. Former federal officials, environmental groups and Democrats in Congress said many of Trump’s rules were intended to benefit private industry at the expense of protection.

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

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

Researchers have said that cats kill the most birds in the US – more than 2 billion a year.

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

Officials said enforcement would resume after Wednesday’s action took effect in 60 days.

According to wildlife officials, relatively few enforcement cases end with prosecution because most companies are willing to take measures to address the dangers their operations may pose to birds.

Courts are divided as to whether companies can be prosecuted for unintentional bird deaths.

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Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

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