Pause in Migratory Bird Treaty Act Improvements Concern Conservationists

Finalizing Key Protective Measures Will Reduce Commercial Hazards
Golden Eagle on powerline post. Photo by Greg Homel

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that expected efforts to update the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) are on hold. This rulemaking update would establish a general permitting system under the Act that would clarify and improve the process for handling the predictable and preventable killing of migratory birds from commercial activities.

“The current administration missed this historic opportunity to conserve migratory birds by not offering a smart solution that would resolve this long-running debate and finally provide clarity over incidental take,” said Steve Holmer, Vice President of Policy for American Bird Conservancy (ABC). “We need action to reverse today's massive bird declines.”

The MBTA is a century-old landmark law that prohibits the sale, possession, and killing of migratory birds without a permit. In 2017, legal opinion and a subsequent rule eliminated industry responsibility to avoid incidental take. The rule was rescinded in 2021, with a new rulemaking process launched that year to establish a permitting program for incidental take. 

This permitting process was intended to advance bird conservation by expanding the use of beneficial practices that avoid, minimize, and compensate for impacts to birds. A permitting system would also provide industry increased certainty without substantial administrative burden and establish clear, consistent guidelines for meeting legal obligations under the MBTA. 

“Infrastructure designs and technologies already exist that effectively reduce incidental take. Turning off the steady burning lights on communications towers and widening the distance between power lines can help birds tremendously,” said Holmer. “These could be appropriate criteria for a general permit along with a common-sense process that requires best practices to reduce the number of accidental bird deaths each year.”

Available beneficial practices for power lines found in the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee guidelines, and for wind energy in the USFWS Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines, offer established solutions to address incidental take from renewable energy development. 

Additional benefits are also possible. For example, preventing power line electrocutions would also reduce fire risks. New lighting standards on tall towers show they would not only reduce bird losses by up to 70 percent, but also generate considerable cost-savings for tower operators after steady-burning lights, that researchers know to cause problems for birds, are turned off.

“ABC is urging the administration to complete the proposed rule after taking another round of public comments, and ensure the MBTA will continue its needed role to conserve at-risk migratory birds,” said Holmer. “We would like to request the issue of a permitting system for the incidental killing of birds be settled as soon as possible.”

Read ABC's comments in support of the proposed rule here.

Learn more how you can help migratory birds here.


American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on abcbirds.orgFacebookInstagram, and X/Twitter (@ABCbirds).

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