STATEMENT on Trump rule to weaken enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Jan 5, 2021

January 5, 2021

DENVER—The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to release final regulations that would weaken enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a foundational wildlife conservation law passed in 1918. For decades, the law has been used to hold companies accountable for killing birds in oil spills and other environmental disasters, most notably in the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The final rules codify a highly controversial legal opinion issued by Interior Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, a former Koch advisor, which declared the law only applies when companies intentionally kill birds.

In response, the Center for Western Priorities released the following statement from Executive Director Jennifer Rokala:

“This radical interpretation of the law has already allowed oil companies to kill birds without repercussions. Now, the Trump administration wants to make sure extractive industries can continue to kill birds after they leave office.

“Secretary Bernhardt’s former oil industry clients have explicitly asked for this policy change, and now he is delivering, just days before returning to the private sector. By finalizing this proposal, the Trump administration is signing the death warrants of millions of birds across the country.” 

Public comments submitted in 2017 by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), a former client of Interior Secretary Bernhardt, ask the agency to clarify that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act does not include incidental take, both by rescinding an Obama-era legal opinion and by instituting a new rulemaking—both of which have now been done. The Center for Investigative Reporting has reported on recordings that show IPAA executives bragging about their direct access to David Bernhardt.

An investigation by the New York Times found that in the wake of Interior Solicitor Jorjani’s legal opinion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has largely stopped investigating bird deaths and discouraged local governments and businesses from taking precautionary steps to protect birds.


  • A Trump policy ‘clarification’ all but ends punishment for bird deaths [New York Times]
  • North American bird populations have dropped 29% over the past half century [New York Times]
  • Tracking the Trump administration’s unfinished business on public lands [Westwise]
  • Cutting the public out of public lands: Analysis shows overwhelming opposition to major Interior Department policy changes [Westwise]

Photo: Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. John Zaker / USFWS