However, at the urging of industry groups, the Trump administration remains firm believers that the law has been inappropriately used for decades to punish corporations and other businesses that accidentally kill birds.
More than 1,000 species are covered by the Migratory Birds Act, and an attempt to lower enforcement standards has sparked a sharp backlash among organizations advocating an estimated 46 million U.S. bird watchers.
Conservationists said Tuesday they would urge President-elect Joe Biden to overturn the Home Office rule prevents officials from bringing criminal charges unless birds are specifically targeted for death or injury.
Former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Dan Ashe and independent scientists said the change could lead to it a big increase in bird deaths – potentially billions of birds in the decades to come – at a time when species are already in sharp decline across North America.
A Trump administrative analysis of the rule change didn’t reveal a number of how many birds could still die. However, some endangered species could decline to the point that they would need to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Industrial sources and other human activities – from oil pits and wind turbines to vehicle strikes and glass building collisions – kill an estimated 460 million to 1.4 billion birds annually, out of a total of 7.2 billion birds in North America and Wildlife Service and current, according to U.S. Fish Studies. Researchers say cats are the leading killer, killing over 2 billion birds each year.
Many companies have tried to reduce bird death by working with wildlife officials over the past few decades, but the incentive to get involved in such efforts is decreasing without the risk of criminal liability.
The 1918 Migratory Birds Act came after many US bird populations were decimated by hunting and poaching – much of it for feathers for women’s hats.
The most famous enforcement case bought under the law resulted in a $ 100 million settlement by energy company BP after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill killed approximately 100,000 birds.
Administrative officials said the new rule should be in line with a 2017 Home Office legal opinion that effectively ended law enforcement under the law during most of Trump’s presidency. In the August court ruling cracking this legal view, U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni in New York said the law applies to all bird deaths, not just those that were intentional.
Over the decades, however, the federal courts have been divided over whether companies can be prosecuted under the Migratory Birds Act. The appeals courts ruled three times in favor of industry and twice against companies.
Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said Trump officials have given oil companies and other industries “a license to kill birds.”
Home Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement that the amendment, which will come into effect next month, “simply reaffirms the original meaning and intent of the Law on the Migratory Birds Treaty”.
“The US Fish and Wildlife Service will not prosecute landowners, industries and others for accidentally killing a migratory bird,” said Bernhardt.
An electrical industry trade group said it expected its members to continue taking steps to reduce bird deaths. The government estimates that more than 30 million birds are killed each year in collisions with electrical lines and electrocution from power poles.
“We live and work in the communities we serve and have long volunteered to protect wildlife and their habitats,” said Brian Reil of the Edison Electric Institute.
However, companies that take voluntary steps do not protect themselves from cases like the BP oil spill, said Jason Rylander, senior counsel for Defenders of Wildlife.
“Such dire situations shouldn’t be outside the enforcement powers of the Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Rylander. “In every industry there are good and bad actors.”