The Hill Op-Ed: Shut down America’s bird death traps

By David Yarnold — More than a century ago, one of the greatest threats to America’s birds was the fashion industry, which slaughtered as many as 200 million birds every single year.

Times have changed. And so have the threats to birds. Tens of millions of birds die grisly and unnecessary deaths every year because of bird death traps scattered across America: oil pits, power lines, communication towers and other deadly but avoidable hazards.

Unfortunately, the law that the American people supported and the U.S. Congress enacted to protect birds from senseless slaughter 98 years ago hasn’t kept up with the times or the threats. That law, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, banned the killing and harm of America’s birds and put in place protections for game birds.

The U.S. Department of Interior now has the chance to modernize the 98-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act to protect birds from these 21st century threats. It is considering important changes in the law that would both cover new threats and give industry the guidance it needs to better protect birds.

These proposed changes would make the enforcement of laws protecting birds more even-handed, while giving industry greater incentives to make their operations safer for birds.

The electrocutions, broken wings and necks, and oily deaths that birds face because of modern day threats are prohibited by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but today the law goes largely unenforced—or unevenly enforced—against these modern threats.

As it stands now, the inconsistent application of the law in federal courts has created major uncertainties for both the Department of the Interior, the agency that is charged with enforcing bird safety regulations, and the industries and businesses affected by the law. These industries may be exposed to different criminal penalties depending on their jurisdiction.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates, power lines kill up to 175 million birds a year. Communications towers rack up to 50 million kills, and uncovered oil waste pits account for up to another 500,000 to 1 million. Data on wind turbines are harder to come by, but current estimates hover at about 300,000 bird fatalities a year.

Today we have the technology and the tools to make manmade structures and industrial sites safer for birds. It’s time to put that technology and those tools to work.

Many companies are working already with conservationists to find solutions that keep birds safe. For example, the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee has focused for many years on developing ways to reduce the number of birds killed by power lines. Oil pits can be covered with simple nets to save birds from oily, gruesome deaths.

A number of these solutions are inexpensive and involve little more than good common sense. Making communications towers more bird-friendly can be as simple as changing the light bulbs from steady red lights to flashing lights. Some changes may be more complex, but rising to those challenges is good for business, good for birds, and good for the people who also live near oil pits and other potential hazards.

And while it is laudable that many companies are cooperating to make birds safer, everyone needs to play by the same rules. It’s time to end the free pass we’ve been giving many bad actors.

Americans have a long tradition of protecting and enjoying birds, whether it’s a brilliant cardinal in your backyard, a stately Great Blue Heron in a neighborhood pond or autumn ducks at your local National Wildlife Refuge.

Americans have proven before that we can stop the slaughter of our birds and the loss of our irreplaceable natural heritage. We know what to do. Now is the time to do it. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act needs to be brought into the 21st century.

It’s time to shut down America’s bird death traps.

David Yarnold @david_yarnold is president and CEO of National Audubon Society.

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