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Trump Administration Reverses Policy on Protecting Migrating Birds

The Trump administration has reversed a key policy for protecting migrating birds. Officials say a century-old federal law is outdated and poses a burden for utilities and energy companies.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For a century, most migrating birds in the United States have been protected under federal law. But the Trump administration has quietly changed that policy. Late last year, it reversed a key part of how the law is enforced. Earthfix reporter Courtney Flatt and Jes Burns have this story from Oregon.

JES BURNS, BYLINE: The Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for geese, hawks and ducks in suburban Portland. The bird refuge is essentially fenced-in on all sides, not by chain links, but by power lines owned by Portland General Electric. And birds and power lines don't always mix.

ANDY BIDWELL: Collisions do happen.

BURNS: Utility biologist Andy Bidwell says, a few years back, crews retrofitted the power lines surrounding the refuge to try to cut down on bird deaths, taking measures like covering exposed wires to prevent electrocutions.

BIDWELL: We want to protect birds. Our customers want us to protect birds. And it makes sense for our system as far as reliability and preventing outages.

BURNS: There was also another reason. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the utility could be held criminally responsible for those bird deaths even though they didn't mean to kill them. The law has been used to hold the energy industry accountable - for example, as partial grounds for a $100 million settlement with BP for birds killed during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But no longer.

The Interior Department announced it won't go after these accidental deaths, saying in a statement that doing so goes beyond the original intent of the 1918 law. The department declined an interview request. But the Trump administration has called the threat of prosecution a burden to domestic energy production and development. Dan Rohlf is an environmental law professor at Lewis and Clark College. He says the message to energy developers is clear.

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