In 1918, 100 years ago, the Congress of the United States passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) to help protect wild birds in North America from extinction. Bird populations, ravaged by habitat loss, overhunting, and pollution, had dropped sharply in the years leading up to the act. The MBTA helped preserve those populations and allowed them to recover and thrive. In late 2017, however, the administration of President Donald Trump weakened the protections provided by the MBTA, calling them an unnecessary burden to industry.
The widespread and largely unregulated growth of industry led to new pollution problems in the United States in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Wildlife of all sorts were threatened by pollution as well as the reduction of forests, wetlands, and other natural habitats. At that time, nongame birds in particular were threatened by the commercial trade in birds and bird feathers—especially in millinery (ladies’ hats). Species such as the sandhill crane, the snowy egret, and the wood duck were hunted to near extinction. The National Audubon Society and other conservation groups pushed Congress to pass the MBTA, which made it illegal to harm or kill migratory birds, either intentionally by hunting or “unintentionally” as a by-product of industry.
The MBTA saved millions of birds from the feather fashion trend (which did not last) and from many environmentally detrimental industrial practices. Congress levied heavy fines against industries that did not take common sense steps to prevent bird deaths. For example, a company could be fined for having oil, gas, or tar waste pits that birds mistake for typical ponds (resulting in poison deaths), or for having unmarked power transmission lines (resulting in collision or electrocution deaths). And in the case of environmental disasters, MBTA fines helped pay for the recovery of bird habitats. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP, one of the world’s largest international oil companies, paid a $100 million fine under the MBTA (part of a much larger overall settlement). Most industries have readily complied with the MBTA over its long history.
On the eve of the MBTA’s 100th anniversary, however, the Trump administration changed how the act would be interpreted. The Department of the Interior said it would punish only the intentional killing of migratory birds. This move frees industries from responsibility for the “unintentional” killing of birds through environmentally unsound practices. The feather fashion industry may have gone away, but pollution has not; natural habitats continue to disappear, and environmental disasters continue to happen. Migratory birds have recovered largely because of the industrial application of the MBTA. Without it, birds are once again at the mercy of industry, which is much less likely to invest in precautionary measures to prevent bird deaths.
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Image: Bald eagles are one of more than 1,000 bird species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Credit: © FloridaStock/Shutterstock