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Incidental Take of Migratory Birds Prohibited Once Again as New MBTA Rule Becomes Effective

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) final rule that presumptively reinstates liability for incidental take under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (“MBTA”) becomes effective on December 3. The new rule revokes a Trump-era regulation that had limited the scope of the MBTA to intentional take, such as hunting, of migratory birds protected under the statute. The MBTA covers over 1,000 species of birds.

The new rule is the latest in a back-and-forth effort to expand or contract the reach of the MBTA, chiefly depending on who is in the White House. Revocation of the prior rule will have different legal significance depending on where you are in the United States, as the federal courts of appeals have been split on whether the text of the MBTA prohibits incidental take.

If you are within the jurisdictions of the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Fifth, Eighth or Ninth Circuits (i.e., much of the western and central United States), which have held that the MBTA does not prohibit non-intentional harm to migratory birds, revocation of the Trump rule may not change the legal landscape that much. If you are within the jurisdictions of the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Second or Tenth Circuits (i.e., New York State and a big chunk of the Mountain West), which have affirmed prosecutions for incidental take under the MBTA, FWS will have legal support for potential enforcement action.

Along with the new rule, FWS issued a Director’s Order aimed at establishing criteria for the types of conduct that will be a priority for enforcement activities with respect to incidental takes. FWS will prioritize enforcement of activities that both foreseeably cause incidental take and fail to implement “beneficial practices” that are meant to limit incidental takes.

FWS also published an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (“ANPR”), announcing its intention to develop a regulatory scheme to authorize the incidental take of migratory birds. FWS notes that it believes the voluntarily implemented beneficial practices are not sufficient to prevent population decline. Through this rulemaking process, FWS aims to formalize its interpretation of MBTA as prohibiting incidental take and hopes to provide certainty to industry and stakeholders while working to conserve migratory birds. FWS is currently considering authorizing incidental take by three primary mechanisms: 1) exceptions to the MBTA's prohibition on incidental take; 2) general permits for certain activity types, including wind and solar power generation projects; and 3) individual permits for activities deemed to pose the most risk to birds.

For greater detail about the actions taken by FWS regarding the MBTA, please click here.

For more information on this topic, contact Gordon Smith or any other member of the Environmental & Land Use group.

Topics: Endangered Species Act