Trump administration scales back wild bird protections

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FILE - In this June 26, 2010 file photo, Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Director P.J. Hahn rescues a heavily oiled bird from the waters of Barataria Bay, La. The Trump administration wants to end the criminal penalties under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to pressure companies into taking measures to prevent unintentional bird deaths. Critics including top Interior Department officials from Republican and Democratic administrations say the proposed change could devastate threatened and endangered species and accelerate a bird population decline across North America since the 1970s. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

BILLINGS, Mont. – The Trump administration on Tuesday finalized changes that weaken the government's enforcement powers under a century-old law protecting most American wild bird species, brushing aside warnings that billions of birds could die as a result.

Federal wildlife officials have acknowledged the move could result in more deaths of birds such as those that land in oil pits or collide with power lines or other structures.

A U.S. District Court judge in August had blocked the administration's prior attempt to change how the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is enforced.

But urged on by industry groups, the Trump administration has remained adamant that the act has been wielded inappropriately for decades, to penalize companies and other entities that kill birds accidentally.

More than 1,000 species are covered under the migratory bird law, and the move to lessen enforcement standards have drawn a sharp backlash from organizations that advocate on behalf of an estimated 46 million U.S. birdwatchers.

Conservationists said Tuesday they would push President-elect Joe Biden to reverse the Interior Department rule, which blocks officials from bringing criminal charges unless birds are specifically targeted for death or injury.

Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe and independent scientists have said the change could cause a huge spike in bird deaths — potentially billions of birds in coming decades — at a time when species across North America already are in steep decline.

A Trump administration analysis of the rule change did not put a number on how many more birds could die. But it said some vulnerable species could decline to the point where they would require protection under the Endangered Species Act.