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Vermont officials unhappy with federal migratory bird rollbacks

Published: Jan. 14, 2021 at 8:31 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - For more than 100 years, the Migratory Bird Act has protected most American species of birds from being ignored when land gets developed, but some say it wrongly punishes people for accidents.

To address that, a rule is changing at the federal level. Vermont Fish & Wildlife officials say most animals like deer or bear can be protected at the state level, but for migrating birds, federal protection was always best. “This is the wrong direction. This is a mistake that’s being made at the federal level,” said Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter. He says changing federal rules only makes protection harder and that holding people responsible for hurting birds is key to helping save a species on the decline. “The Migratory Bird Treaty Act has been successful as one part of a larger strategy to protect and restore these bird species.”

U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said in part, “We have restored the original meaning and intent of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by making it clear that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will not prosecute landowners, industry, and other individuals for accidentally killing a migratory bird.”

Porter says Vermont hasn’t to his knowledge had to use the federal act, but other experts say the act was not created strictly for punishment. “The argument for strict liability is that people will then take appropriate action to mitigate the chance for injury to birds,” said Charlie Rattigan, the executive director of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee. He says the law doesn’t attempt to limit developments either, just urges caution. He says stripping it of its power of accountability means people will be less likely to do the right thing. “The worry is, with the loosening of the rules, there will be less incentive on the part of industry to take these active steps.”

However, wildlife experts in partnership with Audubon Vermont saw these rollbacks coming, so they worked on Bill H.683 and it was signed into law in October of 2020. This means despite changes at the federal level, rules are still in place in Vermont. It is illegal to harm birds listed under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act here in the state, giving them a safe nesting spot as they pass.

“This new interpretation, if it were to go into place and if it were to continue into the future, we would have some ability to backstop and have those protections be in place for birds,” said Porter. He also says he hopes that the incoming administration will reverse the changes so birds will find safety not only here, but everywhere.

The rule change also has no effect on the Endangered Species Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

VINS on top of being an educational center for people of all ages, has a section dedicated to rehabbing orphaned or injured birds. They say they have seen an uptick of orphaned or injured birds being brought in to them. “We had a record number of birds come in, both the baby birds that have been orphaned and need to be cared for and fed before being released or birds injured generally through human activity. But we had over 1,000 birds come in this past calendar year, which is almost 400 more than the year before,” said Rattigan.

He says the increased number of birds coming in is likely due to people being aware of VINS’ services, as well as attempting to save birds.

He says the biggest causes of bird population loss in Vermont is human activity and cats.

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