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The day after Donald Trump supporters attacked the US Capitol in an attempt to overturn the result of the 2020 US election, the then-president's administration moved to weaken a law that has protected migratory birds for more than a century.
The move, which targeted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, was overshadowed by the news of the insurrection, but its implementation caught the attention of conservationists, who worried that the policy change would result in an increased number of migratory bird deaths.
On Thursday, the Biden administration proposed to reverse the change.
The Interior Department announced a proposal that would restore the protections to migratory birds offered by the 102-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act which limits the number of "incidental take" – or accidental killings – of birds by individuals and organisation like oil and gas companies that do not take proper precautions to protect the animals.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued a statement explaining the move.
“The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a bedrock environmental law that is critical to protecting migratory birds and restoring declining bird populations,” the statement said. “Today’s actions will serve to better align Interior with its mission and ensure that our decisions are guided by the best-available science.”
The move to weaken the act by the Trump administration came after an opinion issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service solicitor's opinion that said accidental bird deaths were not prohibited by the act.
The change advised wildlife police to ignore actions that previously would have been considered crimes, like destroying buildings in which certain baby birds may be nesting.
The change was so drastic that it even would have protected companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which left up to 1 million birds dead or injured.
The biggest beneficiaries of the Trump administration ruling were oil companies.
According to the Audubon Society, oil companies were responsible for 90 per cent of accidental deaths that were prosecuted under the act.
Companies could be fined up to $6,500 per violation. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the spill from the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989 accounted for 97 per cent of the fines administered under the act.
In response to the Biden administration's proposal, the Independent Petroleum Association issued a statement condemning the change.
“Repealing this provision will not have the desired outcome of additional conservation but will, in fact, financially harm businesses who have an incidental take through no fault of their own,” Mallori Miller, the vice president of government relations, said in a statement to The Washington Post.
Conservation-oriented organisations praised the move, however.
“We’re confident in the Biden administration’s commitment to both bring these protections back and to strengthen them,” Sarah Greenberger, senior vice president of conservation for Audubon, said. “We hope to see the administration follow quickly with another rulemaking to establish a reasonable permitting approach for incidental take. A permitting programme is a common-sense approach to clarifying these long-standing protections and providing the certainty industry wants.”
Eric Glitzenstein, the litigation director for the Center for Biological Diversity, also praised the move, but said action should be taken quickly to stop further deaths.
“The Biden administration is right to reverse the horrific Trump rule, which allows millions of migratory birds to be killed with impunity,” he said in a statement. “But a federal court already shot down the legal interpretation underlying Trump’s policy, so the Interior Department can and should jettison the rule immediately, rather than let it remain in effect during a drawn-out administrative proceeding. Our struggling bird populations can’t afford delay.”