Oil-covered American coot in oilfield wastewater pond, Wyoming. US Fish & Wildlife photo

Last week, Donald Trump unleashed yet another unhinged lie-filled rant claiming wind turbines cause American Bird Carnage. As Wonkette's Liz Dye pointed out, nah, many times more birds are killed by buildings and domestic cats, though generally not at the same time. Then, on Christmas Eve, the New York Times ran a major story on a very real threat to far larger numbers of birds: the Trump administration's decision to gut the Migratory Bird Act in 2017, by changing how the law is enforced.

The report is based on a trove of government documents and emails about the new enforcement priority -- really a policy of nearly complete non-enforcement. The administration has effectively eliminated any penalties for companies that kill birds or destroy their habitats, and is now actively discouraging industry as well as state and local governments from taking actions to protect wild birds.

Wouldn't you know it, Trump's bitter tears about all the poor birds being murdered by wind energy aren't just fake; his own policies pose a far greater environmental risk. Isn't that a surprise.


The Migratory Bird Act was originally passed in 1918 to protect birds from over-hunting and poaching -- a couple of decades late for the passenger pigeon, but it at least managed to prevent other extinctions. The Times explains how enforcement of the law evolved:

It makes it illegal "by any means or in any manner" to hunt, take, capture or kill birds, nests or eggs from listed species without a permit.

Beginning in the 1970s, federal officials used the act to prosecute and fine companies up to $15,000 per bird for accidental deaths on power lines, in oil pits, in wind turbines and by other industrial hazards.

Republicans and their oil industry owners have long complained that the law was being used to prevent Americans from getting prosperous by wiping out pesky birds that don't yield any profits for anyone, or at least not for anyone who matters. Those complaints only accelerated during the Obama administration, because War On Oil, and one industry flack sobbed bitterly that "It felt like [the law] was weaponized against one industry."

So as a gift to polluters and other job creators, the Trump administration reinterpreted the rule so we can all get rich without government oppression, hooray!

Changes to the interpretation of the law topped the association's wish list for the Trump administration. Six months after that list was released, the Interior Department ended prosecutions for bird deaths "when the underlying purpose of that activity is not to take birds."

If landowners destroy a barn knowing it is filled with baby owls, they would not be liable, as long as the intent was not to kill owls, the opinion said. The illegal spraying of a banned pesticide would not be a legal liability either as long as the birds were not the "intended target."

For anyone to get prosecuted now, a company would have to actually have its employees shooting birds, and even then, Interior might insist on documentary proof that they were aiming at the birds, not at, say, black helicopters they thought were spying on them.

Again and again, government records show Interior Department officials explaining, to state and local governments and other federal agencies, that America is out of the business of protecting migratory birds.

  • The Coast Guard identified a ship that had spilled oil off Woods Hole, Massachusetts, killing a couple dozen seabirds, and notified the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The Feds replied that because the birds hadn't been killed intentionally, "there's currently no enforcement action plan."
  • An oil company in Wyoming asked Fish And Wildlife if it really no longer had to report birds killed in the course of operations, and got back a reply reading "You are correct." On the bright side, the email didn't add "Go for it!"
  • In Michigan a property manager emailed USFWS because residents were complaining that birds were dying while a contractor put up new gutters. Good news! "If the purpose or intent of your activity is not to take birds/nests/eggs, then it is no longer prohibited."
  • In Arizona, a homeowner's association, in perhaps the only example of a HOA trying to do good, complained that a developer was wiping out burrowing owl nests on an adjacent property. USFWS replied it couldn't get involved.
In that last example, though, you get a hint of how some career agents with USFW feel about the new regime:
"Of course, we just got sued over that interpretation, so we'll see how it ends up," the enforcement officer wrote.

To make matters worse, the administration is also going out of its way to tell state and local governments that any efforts to mitigate harm to migratory birds are "purely voluntary," so if you want to let a new construction project wipe out nesting areas, go for it. Trump administration lawyers advised the state of Virginia that it didn't have to develop an artificial island that would make up for wiping out nesting grounds in a major bridge and tunnel project near Chesapeake Bay. So the state dropped the plan, which it had been working on in conjunction with an environmental group.

The loss of the Hampton Roads nesting area will devastate some bird species because it was the last they had. Other sites in the Chesapeake Bay have been lost to sea level rise and erosion.

The birds, now south for the winter, will return in March and April to land that has been paved. Construction crews may have to take aggressive measures to prevent the birds from nesting wherever they can, like in cracks in the asphalt.

There's your beat-up little seagull, Mr. Newman.

How's this for a jaw-dropper? Under the new rule, the Times explains,

Even a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, which killed or injured about a million birds, would not expose a company to prosecution or fines.

And all this is happening as scientists reported in September that North America has lost nearly a third of its wild birds in the past 50 years.

It's insane, and yet another example of how Team Trump is using the narrowest possible interpretation of environmental laws to fuck over the environment because regulation is bad for business. And with the big crop of judges who think it's legal to tell truck drivers they must freeze to death on the job, there's no reason to think the federal courts will help a bunch of stupid birds, who don't even hire the best lobbyists.

But at least if your toilet is clogged with dead owls, you'll be able to clear 'em out with one mighty flush.

[NYT / NYT / Audubon]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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