Illustration by Jillian Ditner.
From the autumn 2020 edition of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.
A year ago, a landmark study published in Science made headlines around the world. The most robust bird population assessment of North America ever made showed a staggering 29% decrease since 1970 – or nearly 3 billion birds lost to the continental bird population in just a few decades.
“We were amazed by the result – it’s just mind-blowing,” study lead author Ken Rosenberg, a scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Conservation, told the New York Times in a September 20, 2019 cover story.
On May 10, 2020, the New York Times published a list of 100 federal environmental regulations in the United States that the government has reversed or is in the process of reversing. The rollbacks range from granting federal permits for more air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to protecting the protection of wildlife and water. Basic American environmental policy, traced back to the administrations of Nixon, Wilson, and even Theodore Roosevelt, has been fragmented and broken up over the past four years.
The attack included direct attacks on bird policy, such as the crippling of the 102-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty and the weakening of the Endangered Species Act. Bird populations are also likely to be affected by the weakened protection of American lands and waters. Birds pay dearly when ecosystems are threatened and polluted.
The next four years are an opportunity to promote and avoid action to rebuild and restore American bird populations, as Rosenberg and his study co-authors warned us about – a “collapse of the continental avifauna.”
More than 100 strongly declining bird species will face higher mortality rates due to a weakened law on the Treaty on Migratory Birds. From left: Swainson’s thrush, black and white warbler, yellow throat, and barn swallow have each declined 20% or more since 1970.
The environmental policy of the bedrock is crumbling
Among the 100 environmental laws that have been rolled back in the past four years, there are several areas where weakened federal policies will exacerbate bird decline.
Weakening of the Treaty on the Birds of Migration (December 2017)
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was born in 1916 with President Woodrow Wilson’s signature, a pledge between the United States and Canada to protect North America’s migratory birds from unregulated killing or taking. In a 2018 essay for Living Bird, Lynn Scarlett – former Assistant Secretary of the Interior under President George W. Bush – wrote of this longstanding definition of take: “For at least five decades, Republican and Democratic governments have understood the law to mean” take “and” Prohibiting “killing” of birds … not only against hunting without permission, but also against the “accidental taking” of foreseeable damage such as oil spills, wind turbines and transmission lines. “The MBTA imposed fines of $ 100 million on the companies responsible for blowing out the Deepwater Horizon oil well, which killed 1 million birds.
In December 2017, the interior ministry’s assistant attorney issued a memorandum not overriding the MBTA takeover. This means the industry would no longer receive penalties for negligent bird death. In August 2020, a federal district judge struck down the attorney’s statement. At the time of going to press, however, Interior appeared to be pushing a rule change to exclude accidental adoption from the law on the Treaty on Migratory Birds.
Pinyon Jays are in sharp decline (4 out of 5 lost since 1970) and will be severely affected by the loss of protected habitat on public land.
Dropping fall protection for public properties (December 2017)
The President’s legacy of protecting America’s wildest lands goes back to President Lincoln (who protected Yosemite Valley) and President Grant (who founded Yellowstone National Park). Since President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, which established the President’s power to protect land as a national monument, every US president has expanded the area of America’s Protected Public Areas – until now.
In December 2017, the government reduced Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monuments by 2 million acres to open up areas for oil and gas exploration and mining (the biggest setback in state defense in US history). The next year, the government restored previously terminated federal leases for copper-nickel mining in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Left: The decline in the Saltmarsh Sparrow population (lost 3 out of 4 since the 1990s) has made the species a candidate for ESA listing, but weakened critical habitat protection could affect the law’s ability to help the bird.
Dilution of the Endangered Species Act (August 2019)
The Endangered Species Act was incorporated into law in 1973 and requires the United States to protect and restore species that are threatened with extinction. “Nothing is more priceless and more worth preserving than the abundance of wildlife that our land has been blessed with,” said President Richard Nixon when the law was signed. Almost half of the species on the endangered list at the time were birds, including bald eagles, kirtland warblers, and brown pelican – all three have since recovered and were removed from the list.
In August 2019, the administration completed a series of rule changes that weaken the Endangered Species Act by removing automatic protection against the inclusion of species classified as threatened by the ESA. The changes to ESA rules also make it harder to hold federal agencies accountable for activities that threaten the continued existence of an endangered species and downplay the role of climate change in ESA designation of critical habitats.
Northern pintails (lost 2 of 5 since 1970) could experience steeper population losses due to rollbacks to protect wetlands in the Prairie Pothole region.
Protection from clean water (September 2019)
The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, at a time when two-thirds of America’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters were so polluted that they were considered unsafe for fishing or swimming. Congress took strong action to pass the Clean Water Act over President Nixon’s veto and enact law that will regulate US water pollution. For the first four decades, the Clean Water Act was one of the most effective environmental laws in the country. It significantly reduced industrial pollutant emissions and reduced the rate of wetland loss.
At the beginning of the 21st century, a third of US waters were unsuitable for fishing and swimming, and wetlands were still being lost. In 2015, the Obama administration finalized the Waters of the US Rule to strengthen the Clean Water Act’s protection for the feeder sources (wetlands, short-lived bodies of water, and streams) that are important to healthy bodies of water.
In September 2019, the government lifted the Waters of the US rule. In early 2020, the government released its surrogate rule on protection from navigable waters, which removed the protection of the clean water law from more than half of the wetlands and one-fifth of the streams across the country.
Lesser yellowlegs (lost 1 in 2 since 1970) is a species that may be affected by federal construction projects that drain wetlands.
Restriction of the National Environmental Law (July 2020)
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 was named the Environmental Bill of Rights by the Wilderness Society because it requires public participation in federal agency review of proposed projects and consideration of less polluting alternatives. The idea of conducting comprehensive environmental reviews of federal projects came from a series of Senate hearings on Florida’s Everglades in the 1960s that uncovered a government working on various goals. While the Home Office sought more land protection, the Army Corps of Engineers planned dams and canals to drain water from the Everglades.
NEPA declares a national policy that requires an environmental review of all federal projects and a deadline for public comments so that citizens have a voice in the process.
In July 2020, the administration introduced a rule to limit environmental studies and public comments under NEPA. The proposed rule also allows agencies to designate more projects that do not require an environmental impact assessment.
Research and text by the student editorial assistants Anil Oza and Gustave Axelson with the support of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Science Communication Fund. Graphics and design by Jillian Ditner. Ratings and contributions from Lynn Scarlett, former assistant secretary of the interior under President George W. Bush; Jay Branegan, Senior Fellow at the Lugar Center, founded by former US Senator Richard G. Lugar; and Ya-Wei Li, director of biodiversity at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center.