The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tasked with protecting critical species and their habitat, is supporting President Donald Trump’s plan to weaken laws that protect migratory birds, said an official from the Department of the Interior at a U.S. Senate committee hearing last week.
Robert Wallace, assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, testified Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in support of recent policy changes.
The proposed changes from would mean developers, fossil fuel companies and other industries can’t be lawfully punished for “unintentionally” killing birds. Prosecutors would need to prove actions by companies were done intentionally to kill birds.
U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., said this legislation could “open the door for irresponsible corporate action.”
But Wallace said the migratory bird law was too broad and could criminalize the actions of renewable energy companies when birds fly into wind turbines.
The hearing came shortly after the Bureau of Land Management canceled several oil and gas leases on Colorado land after courts demanded the government investigate impacts on the sage grouse habitat and climate.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act in January that would put decisions about endangered species in the hands of local agencies.
Tipton has said the sage grouse conservation restrictions have put a halt to oil development that could help Southwest Colorado.
Wallace listed priorities for the Fish and Wildlife Service during the hearing. Chief among them are partnerships with landowners to benefit industries such as agriculture and logging. Last on the list was recovery of species, which Fish and Wildlife wants to “return to the state,” he said.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said it was important to strike a balance between protecting wildlife and “barriers to economic growth.”
But Mike Leahy, director of wildlife, hunting and fishing policy at the National Wildlife Federation, said weakened migratory bird protections is was “a significant setback of the law.”
While states have a large role in wildlife conservation, the federal government plays an important role for migratory birds that cross state and country borders, Leahy said.
“The Migratory Bird Treaty Act helped restore birds that were in trouble,” and there is “no reason to pick it apart,” Leahy told The Durango Herald.
Under the Trump administration, 95 environmental rules have been eliminated or weakened, according to The New York Times, including some protecting clean air and water.
Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society and director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative, said sagebrush holds snow into spring and early summer and conserves groundwater. For this reason, a healthy sagebrush ecosystem and sage grouse population are crucial, he said.
“Balanced ecosystems keep us healthy and the environment healthy,” Rutledge said. Cutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has “taken all of the impetus for responsible behavior away,” such as covering oil pits so waterfowl don’t fly into them.
Rutledge said he has been working in conservation for 50 years, and “this is the most devastating part.”
The Migratory Bird Protection Act proposed in the House this year would “protect birds from harm unless there is a permit for commercial activities,” Leahy said. Companies would be given a permit only if they followed practices that minimized harm for birds.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Journal.