SOURCE: New York Times

DATE: December 24, 2019

SNIP: As the state of Virginia prepared for a major bridge and tunnel expansion in the tidewaters of the Chesapeake Bay last year, engineers understood that the nesting grounds of 25,000 gulls, black skimmers, royal terns and other seabirds were about to be plowed under.

To compensate, they considered developing an artificial island as a safe haven. Then in June 2018, the Trump administration stepped in. While the federal government “appreciates” the state’s efforts, new rules in Washington had eliminated criminal penalties for “incidental” migratory bird deaths that came in the course of normal business, administration officials advised. Such conservation measures were now “purely voluntary.”

The state ended its island planning.

The island is one of dozens of bird-preservation efforts that have fallen away in the wake of the policy change in 2017 that was billed merely as a technical clarification to a century-old law protecting migratory birds. Across the country birds have been killed and nests destroyed by oil spills, construction crews and chemical contamination, all with no response from the federal government, according to emails, memos and other documents viewed by The New York Times. Not only has the administration stopped investigating most bird deaths, the documents show, it has discouraged local governments and businesses from taking precautionary measures to protect birds.

In one instance, a Wyoming-based oil company wanted to clarify that it no longer had to report bird deaths to the Fish and Wildlife Service. “You are correct,” the agency replied.

In another, a building property manager in Michigan emailed the Fish and Wildlife Service to note that residents had complained about birds being killed while workers put up siding and gutters around the apartment. Not to worry, the agency replied: “If the purpose or intent of your activity is not to take birds/nests/eggs, then it is no longer prohibited.”

And when a homeowners’ association in Arizona complained that a developer had refused to safely remove nesting burrowing owls from a nearby lot, Fish and Wildlife said that, because of the new legal interpretation, it could not compel the developer to act.

The revised policy — part of the administration’s broader effort to encourage business activity — has been a particular favorite of the president, whose selective view of avian welfare has ranged from complaining that wind energy “kills all the birds” to asserting that the oil industry has been subject to “totalitarian tactics” under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Habitat loss and pesticide exposure already have brought on widespread bird-species declines. The number of adult breeding birds in the United States and Canada has plummeted by 2.9 billion since 1970.

Now, said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, the Trump administration has engineered “a fundamental shift” in policy that “lets industrial companies, utilities and others completely off the hook.” Even a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, which killed or injured about a million birds, would not expose a company to prosecution or fines.

In nearly two dozen incidents across 15 states, internal conversations among Fish and Wildlife Service officers indicate that, short of going out to shoot birds, activities in which birds die no longer merit action. In some cases the Trump administration has even discouraged local governments and businesses from taking relatively simple steps to protect birds, like reporting fatalities when they are found.

“You get the sense this policy is not only bad for birds, it’s also cruel,” Mr. Greenwald said.

The loss of the Hampton Roads nesting area will devastate some bird species because it was the last they had; other sites in the Chesapeake Bay have been lost to sea level rise and erosion. The birds, now south for the winter, will return in March and April to land that has been paved. Construction crews may have to take aggressive measures to prevent the birds from nesting wherever they can, like in cracks in the asphalt.