Amanda Rodewald, Garvin professor and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, gave testimony June 13 to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Natural Resources on the important role the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) plays in protecting birds and a healthy environment.
The MBTA was passed by Congress in 1918 and made the killing or harming of migratory birds illegal except with a special permit issued by the Department of the Interior. The act also protected birds from “incidental take,” which included unintentional harm caused by otherwise lawful activities such as the erection of power lines. However, in 2017 the U.S. Department of the Interior reinterpreted the legislation to apply only to purposeful killing or harming of birds.
Rodewald focused on the MBTA’s role in conserving birds and protecting the environment, and explained how that role has been undermined by the reinterpretation of incidental take. First she addressed the importance of birds to humans.
“When we take steps to benefit birds and their habitats, we benefit, too.,” said Rodewald, also a professor in the Department of Natural Resources and a faculty fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. “We benefit directly from the roles that birds play – like eating the insects that damage crops or cause outbreaks in our forests. Birds also are powerful economic engines by way of hunting and recreation.”
Given the critical role of birds to the environment and human activity, she said, the precipitous decline of North American bird species is concerning. Rodewald pointed to data published by the North American Bird Conservation Institute showing that populations of migratory shorebirds, seabirds and grassland birds have declined by up to 70% since 1970.
“This growing body of evidence indicates that we need to do more, not less, to protect birds,” she said.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about 4 billion birds die each year. Approximately 1 billion of those deaths are due to industry-related activities considered incidental, such as electrocution, accidental poisoning, collisions with powerlines and contact with oil pits.
“The causes of bird mortality are diverse and diffuse, but overwhelmingly incidental in nature,” Rodewald said. “In this way, the 2017 reinterpretation renders the MBTA silent on most sources of human-caused mortality for our birds.”
Prior to the 2017 reinterpretation of MBTA, the act was used effectively by both Republican and Democratic administrations to reduce harm to birds. Rodewald noted several ways in which the MBTA incentivized industry to take positive measures to reduce harm to birds from powerlines, communication towers, wind turbines, fishing and more.
“I am not arguing that we should try to eliminate all human-caused mortality of birds,” Rodewald said. “But we can and should take active steps to reduce harm where possible, and the MBTA helps us to do that.”
For example, the MBTA provided a framework for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with power companies to widen the space between powerlines. Millions of birds, including golden and bald eagles, die each year from collisions with powerlines.
“The U.S. has shown the world by example how healthy environments, strong economies and vibrant communities are compatible and mutually reinforcing,” Rodewald said. “Yet the reinterpretation of the act has weakened protections granted to birds and, in doing so, has undermined the broader environmental and economic benefits to Americans.”
Rachel Rhodes is a public affairs and media relations specialist in Cornell’s Washington, D.C., office.