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Federal Judge Strikes Down Trump Administration Rollback of Law To Protect Migrant Birds


Aug. 14 2020, Updated 3:16 p.m. ET

It’s no secret that the Trump administration has done little to nothing to improve the environment or preserve the ecosystem (quite the opposite, actually). Environmentalists and ornithologists rejoiced when a federal judge struck down a Trump administration attempt to allow polluters to kill birds without repercussions through a rewriting of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

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The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects migratory birds from harm.

According to the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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The Trump administration intended to change years of established policy to allow the killing of migratory birds as long as an individual or corporation could prove they did not intend to kill the birds intentionally, according to The Washington Post.

The federal judge referenced ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in her decision.

U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni questioned the humanity and morality of an administration, like Donald Trump’s, that would interpret the "taking" and "killing" of birds in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as only applying to actions that specifically targeted birds.

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"It is not only a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is also a crime," the judge wrote, according to Reuters. "That has been the letter of the law for the past century. But if the Department of the Interior has its way, many mockingbirds and other migratory birds that delight people and support ecosystems throughout the country will be killed without legal consequence."

The MBTA has offered protection for over 100 years to 1,000 different birds.

According to The Hill, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has, for more than 100 years, offered protections to more than 1,000 different types of birds. Those companies who violate the treaty face penalties whose projects or infrastructure harm them. 

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However, in 2017, the Interior Department's Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, advised the Trump administration to punish the oil and gas industry, construction companies, and others only if their work intentionally kills birds. This change would effectively end the entire idea of the law that asks for the migratory patterns of birds to be considered when developing a project.

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"The opinion freezes the MBTA in time as a hunting-regulation statute, preventing it from addressing modern threats to migrating bird populations," Judge Caproni wrote in a decision striking down the suggestion, calling it "an unpersuasive interpretation of the MBTA's unambiguous prohibition on killing protected birds," according to The Hill.

The small change to the law would make an astronomical difference to the MBTA.

The Washington Post reported that attempting to alter the MBTA would have meant that BP, the company responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, would not be responsible for the death of roughly 1 million birds that died due to that accident. The law would also mean that if an oil company forgot to cover a tar pit and birds landed it and died, the company would not be responsible, upending decades of existing regulations.

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Environmentalist groups and animal advocates were thrilled with the federal court’s decision. "We're elated to see this terrible opinion overturned at a time when scientists are warning that we've lost as many as 3 billion birds [in North America] in the last 50 years," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "To relax rules, to have the unhampered killing or birds didn't make any sense [and] was terrible and cruel really."

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