A US district court has dealt a major blow to Donald Trump’s reckless assault on the natural world. Federal judge Valerie Caproni struck down a 2017 decision by the Trump administration that effectively decriminalised the accidental killing of protected birds.
“It is not only a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is also a crime”
The 2017 policy change that removed protections for birds benefited companies such as energy giants. As the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in an announcement on the victory:
Enacted in 2017, the policy has been deadly. In its wake snowy owls and other raptors have been electrocuted by perching on uninsulated powerlines — with no consequences for the utilities that own them. Oil spills that killed birds have also prompted no penalties.
In the US, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), which dates back to 1918, penalises those who kill protected birds. In the 1970s, a policy clarified that such killing was illegal whether it occurred deliberately or accidentally. As Caproni explained in her legal judgement:
It is not only a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is also a crime
That has been the letter of the law for the past century.
But, Caproni continued, under Trump’s changed policy “many mockingbirds and other migratory birds that delight people and support ecosystems throughout the country will be killed without legal consequence”. This is because Trump appointee Daniel Jorjani reinterpreted the MBTA in 2017. In a legal opinion, he argued the reference to accidental – or “incidental” – killing was aimed at illicit poaching and hunting, not killings that occurred as a result of enterprise. Jorjani described the original interpretation of the law as a “sword of Damocles over a host of otherwise lawful and productive actions”.
“A cruel, bird-killing gift to polluters”
Caproni, however, struck down Jorjani’s reinterpretation. The judge said it was “simply an unpersuasive interpretation of the (1918 law’s) unambiguous prohibition on killing protected birds”.
Environmental groups, who initiated the legal challenge along with eight states, welcomed the ruling. The Center for Biological Diversity’s endangered species director Noah Greenwald said:
The Trump administration’s policy was nothing more than a cruel, bird-killing gift to polluters, and we’re elated it’s been vacated
As the Hill reported, Greenwald also noted that “scientists are warning that we’ve lost as many as 3 billion birds [in North America] in the last 50 years”.
The Interior Department responded to the judgement saying it “undermines a common sense interpretation of the law”. As Greenwald pointed out, though, birds are in a pretty precarious situation in the US. In fact, globally – which includes the US, despite its much vaunted ‘exceptionalism’ – biodiversity is crashing. As the Center explained in its 2020 plan called Saving Life on Earth:
More than a century of habitat destruction, pollution, the spread of invasive species, wildlife exploitation, climate change, population growth and other human activities have frayed the web of life. With each extinction, natural systems continue unraveling. The drivers of wildlife extinction also undermine the life-support systems of human societies including pollination, water purification, oxygen production and disease regulation. It’s in our own self-interest to fight to protect biodiversity.
So what makes ‘common sense’ is for lawmakers to do everything they can to protect the intricate web of beings – including birds – that make up these ‘life-support systems’. Contrary to what Trump and polluters would have people believe, amid an extinction crisis, it makes no sense whatsoever to tear protections for wildlife down.
Featured image via Guardian News / YouTube