Billings, Mont. – The Biden administration said on Wednesday it would draft rules to control the killing of wild birds by the industry and resume enforcement action against companies responsible for deaths that could have been prevented, a long time ago. An ongoing practice that ended under President Donald Trump.
The move comes as North American bird numbers have declined drastically in recent decades. That decline was punctuated by news on Wednesday that the famous ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 other species of flora and fauna have become extinct.
Conservation groups, which have urged President Joe Biden to take strong action to protect wildlife, said there was an urgent need for the planned regulations to hold companies accountable for bird deaths.
But the administration was immediately shocked by the oil industry, which has been subject to some of the most high-profile indictments under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Most notable was a $100 million settlement by energy company BP, when government investigators concluded that a 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill killed nearly 100,000 birds.
The Trump administration ended enforcement against companies for accidental bird deaths in 2017 after pressure from oil companies, utilities and other industries.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America said resuming prosecution would harm businesses that killed the birds “through no fault of their own.”
Federal officials promised to be prudent in prosecuting violations of the century-old bird law. Jerome Ford, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant director for migratory birds, said enforcement would be reserved for cases where companies could have predicted the birds’ deaths but did not take steps to avoid them.
In drafting the new rule, Ford said officials would look at a wide range of causes of death – from collisions with glass buildings, power lines and vehicles to chemical poisoning and birds killed in oil pits. According to government officials and researchers, millions of birds die annually due to such causes.
“We’ve lost about 3 billion birds in the last 50 years,” Ford said. “We want to create a common-sense approach that works to protect birds and provide regulatory certainty to the industry.”
Under then-President Barack Obama, the Interior Department began developing a permitting system that allowed industry to kill a limited number of birds, but the work was not finished before the Democrats left office.
Representatives from the American Bird Conservancy and the National Audubon Society said they expect the permit program to be completed. According to the conservation, the permits would force companies to take measures such as installing screens to keep birds out of oil pits and turning off or replacing telecommunication tower lights to reduce collisions.
“It’s deer in headlight position: Birds are attracted and then distracted” and collide with towers, said conservation spokesman Jordan Rutter.
The termination of Trump’s prosecution was one of dozens of environmental actions by Republicans that Biden ordered to reconsider on his first day in office. Former federal officials, environmental groups and Democrats in Congress said many of Trump’s rules were intended to benefit private industry at the expense of protection.
More than 1,000 North American bird species are covered by the treaty – from fast-flying peregrine falcons to small songbirds and more than 20 owl species. Non-native species and some game birds, such as wild turkeys, are not on the list.
Former federal officials and some scientists have said that billions more birds could die in the coming decades under Trump’s rule.
Researchers have said that cats kill the most birds in the US – more than 2 billion a year.
In addition to the BP case, hundreds of enforcement cases — targeting utilities, oil companies and wind power developers — have resulted in criminal fines and civil penalties totaling $5.8 million between 2010 and 2018.
Officials said enforcement would resume after Wednesday’s action took effect after 60 days.
According to wildlife officials, relatively few enforcement cases end with prosecution because most companies are willing to take measures to address the dangers their operations may pose to birds.
Courts are divided as to whether companies can be prosecuted for unintentional bird deaths.
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