2018 — Year Of The Bird

“If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world.” — Thomas Lovejoy, biologist and conservationist

In a nutshell, this explains why conservationists celebrate 2018 as the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the most important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdLife International, many other conservation organizations and individual nature lovers around the world have joined forces to celebrate the “Year of the Bird” and commit to protecting birds for the next hundred years.

One hundred years ago many bird populations were in crisis. Five American species (heath hen, great auk, Labrador duck, Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon) had already been driven to extinction primarily due to overhunting for food.

But in the late 1800s fashion reared its deadly head. Large showy egrets and herons such as great egrets, snowy egrets, and great blue herons were hunted for their plumes to decorate women’s hats.

Market hunting for plumes eliminated entire breeding colonies of these magnificent species. Populations in Florida were particularly devastated. This led to calls for regulation and the creation of the National Audubon Society. Ultimately it led to the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Initially the treaty was signed with Great Britain on behalf of Canada. It prohibited the killing of native insectivorous species, collecting eggs and nests, and transporting birds across state lines. Eventually Mexico joined the treaty, and in the 1970s protection was extended to all native birds.

Over the years the treaty was strengthened in a number of ways, and it became the foundation of conservation for American birds. Intentional killing, except by regulated hunting of game birds, was prohibited. As recently as January 2017 the Obama administration ruled that the treaty applied to incidental wounding, killing, or trapping birds as well.

But in an ironic celebration of the Treaty’s centennial, the Trump administration reversed that rule to protect energy companies and other industries from being prosecuted for unintentionally killing migratory birds. Accidental bird deaths caused by oilrigs, natural gas activities, wind turbines, and power lines no longer violate federal law. These industries can excuse themselves by simply saying, “Sorry, we didn’t mean to kill all those birds.”

Unfortunately, this is not the first or only setback suffered by conservationists over the last year. For example,

– the EPA dismissed several members of its Board of Scientific Counselors to allow the agency to consider a more diverse pool of applicants, including industry representatives, for the board.

– the EPA eliminated both its English and Spanish web sites that explained climate change.

– President Trump ordered a review of rules that ban offshore oil and gas drilling in parts of the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans.

– EPA administrator Scott Pruitt threatened to sever ties with the Paris Agreement’s global climate pact. He called it “a bad deal for America.” But remember this is the same guy who, when attorney general of Oklahoma, sued the EPA at least 14 times in six years to protect the state’s oil and gas industries.

– The President has threatened to reduce the size of many western national parks and monuments and open parts of them to mineral development.

– The New Republic reported in March 2017 that the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology had removed the word “science” from its mission statement. The updated language emphasizes “economically and technologically achievable performance standards.”

– Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rescinded an Obama-era prohibition on the use of lead ammunition on federal lands and waters. Never mind that ingesting even a single lead pellet can poison and kill a duck.

This partial list of changes to environmental regulations in just one year is disheartening. As a college student in the 1970s, I witnessed Congress pass the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Environmental Protection Act. I thought the natural world was in good hands. I pray that the future will not prove me to be sadly mistaken.

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Dr. Shalaway can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh or live online anywhere at www.khb radio.com. Visit Scott’s web site www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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