GUEST COLUMN — Last Tuesday, Congresswoman Liz Cheney proposed an amendment to a bill being considered by the House Committee on Natural Resources. The bill, H.R. 4239, would, among other things, open the continental shelf along the southern Atlantic coast to oil and gas leasing. That area was declared off-limits to leasing during the Obama administration.
During markup of the bill, Cheney offered an amendment, which was adopted by a vote of 20 to 14 along party lines. With one sentence, her amendment casually inflicts severe damage on one of America’s most important, and underappreciated, wildlife conservation laws. It proposes this change to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918: “This Act shall not be construed to prohibit any activity proscribed by section 2 of this Act that is accidental or incidental to the presence or operation of an otherwise lawful activity.”
What did Representative Cheney intend to accomplish with this amendment? In a press release on Nov. 8, Cheney wrote that she wanted to limit “overzealous BLM guidance and regulations on energy operators in my state. It’s not just oil and gas, this is also hindering our wind turbine operators as well as home builders and coal mines.” She argues that the act was originally intended only to “protect migratory bird populations from over-hunting, poaching, and illegal sales,” not to restrict industries from killing migratory birds as part of their operations.
It’s nice to have someone with Cheney’s extensive legal and historical background to interpret the intent of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. A shame that, in this instance, she has no grasp of either.
The men who drafted the treaty and its predecessors were justifiably concerned about the decline of the continent’s ducks and geese, without doubt, but they saw much further than these game birds. Beginning in the years following the Civil War, the leaders of the conservation movement had been writing and speaking in defense of the continent’s nongame birds. In 1885, their efforts began to bear fruit, when they managed to convince the federal government to establish a Division of Economic Ornithology. The division’s pioneering studies of songbirds and their food habits soon showed that most nongame birds were a benefit to farmers, preying on the insects and rodents that attacked many crops.
At the same time, the conservation community was pressing for protection of wading birds and songbirds with particularly brilliant plumage. The women’s fashion industry had decreed that ladies’ hats should be decorated with feathers, and the resulting demand was decimating populations of many nongame birds, particularly the egrets and herons whose breeding plumes were in high demand, and at the time more valuable per ounce than gold.
And so it was no accident that the wording of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act included “any migratory bird or any part, nest, or egg thereof,” not just ducks and geese. It was also no accident that the act specified that it would be unlawful “to pursue, take, capture, or kill” any of these birds, whether these efforts were part of recreational hunting or not. The people who drafted the act knew that market demand for meat and feathers was the most dangerous threat to the future of migratory birds. In their view, industry’s demand for birds was an even greater problem than recreational or subsistence hunting.
In 1886, the editor of Forest and Stream magazine, George Bird Grinnell, spoke for many in the scientific and sporting community when he wrote: “Our beautiful birds give to many people a great deal of pleasure and add to the delights of the country. These birds are slaughtered in vast numbers for gain. If the demand for their skins can be caused to fall off, it will no longer repay the bird butchers to ply their trade and the birds will be saved.”
Organizations of hunter-conservationists like the Boone and Crockett Club and the American Game Protective and Propagation Association championed the effort to protect migratory birds. So did scientific societies like the American Ornithologists’ Union and the New York Zoological Society. So did groups of outdoor enthusiasts like the Camp Fire Club. So did America’s largest group of bird enthusiasts, the National Association of Audubon Societies. In fact, the director of the Audubon Society, T. Gilbert Pearson, served on the advisory board that was appointed to help enforce the act.
Cheney is wrong when she implies that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was adopted primarily to protect waterfowl. She is wrong when she implies that the act was adopted primarily to control sport hunting. She is wrong when she suggests that the act was never intended to protect birds from the machinations of the market and industry.
Her amendment attacks the very foundations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If adopted, it would expose millions of birds to heightened risk of death from waste pits, electrical transmission lines, contaminated water, wind turbines, and a myriad of other threats that are “incidental to the presence or operation” of industrial facilities on federal lands in Wyoming and elsewhere across the nation.
It is not too much to expect industry to take precautions to avoid killing our songbirds, waterfowl, raptors, and other migratory birds. If those precautions require corporations to stop and think about the broader effects of their activities, if they require an additional outlay to head off significant impacts to the rest of us, then those things are a part of doing business.
Industries in Wyoming and across the country have lived with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for a century, and in recent decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has shown increasing flexibility in enforcing its provisions. It continues to be what it always has been: one of the nation’s most important wildlife conservation laws, and we certainly don’t need to change it for the convenience of a few corporations.
On her Facebook page, Cheney claims to be “an unyielding advocate for sportsmen and the future generations that will inherit our way of life.” Apparently, her vision of that future doesn’t include the song of a meadowlark, the chorus of a flock of Canada geese on its way north, or the sight of a ferruginous hawk riding the thermals over the sage. She claims to represent us, but this amendment is one more indication of where her loyalties really lie.
Chris Madson holds a master’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for state wildlife agencies in Kansas and Wyoming for 36 years before retiring in 2014 to write full-time. He is a certified wildlife biologist with The Wildlife Society.