The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a government agency tasked with protecting critical species and their habitat, is supportive of President Donald Trump weakening laws that protect migratory birds, said an official from the Department of the Interior at a U.S. Senate committee hearing this week.
Robert Wallace, assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wednesday in support of recent controversial policy changes.
The proposed changes from the Fish and Wildlife Service would mean developers, fossil fuel companies and other industries can’t be punished under the law for “unintentionally” killing birds. Prosecutors would need to prove actions by private 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 thinks the migratory bird law was too broad and could criminalize the actions of renewable energy companies when birds fly into wind turbines.
The hearing comes shortly after the Bureau of Land Management canceled several oil and gas leases on Colorado land after courts demanded the government investigate impacts on sage grouse habitat and climate change.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act in January that would put decision-making power about endangered species in the hands of local agencies.
Tipton has said the sage grouse conservation restrictions have put a halt to oil developments that could benefit the economy in Southwest Colorado.
Wallace listed the upcoming priorities for the Fish and Wildlife Service during the hearing. Chief among them are partnerships with landowners for the benefit of industries like agriculture and timber. Last on the list was recovery of species, which the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to “return to the state,” Wallace said.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said at the hearing it is important to “strike a proper balance” between protecting wildlife and “removing unnecessary barriers to economic growth.”
But Mike Leahy, director of wildlife, hunting and fishing policy at the National Wildlife Federation, said weakening migratory bird protections is “definitely not a compromise, it is 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 a part,” Leahy told The Durango Herald on Wednesday.
Under the Trump administration, 95 environmental rules have been eliminated or weakened, according to The New York Times. The rollbacks include legislation that protects clean air and water.
Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society and director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative, said sagebrush holds snow well into spring and early summer, when it seeps into the ground instead of blowing into a creek. This is an important source of groundwater for farmers and communities. 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.
Regarding recent government cuts to environmental protections, Rutledge said he has been working in conservation for 50 years, and “this is the most devastating part.”
The new Migratory Bird Protection Act proposed in the House earlier this year would “protect birds from harm unless there is a permit for commercial activities,” Leahy said. Companies would only be given a permit if they follow best management practices that minimize harm for birds.
The West has a “wonderful heritage of federal lands and wildlife that Westerners appreciate” and want to see protected, Rutledge said.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.