IWRC and NWRA Oppose Changes to Migratory Bird Treaty Act

March 6, 2020        



[Eugene, Oregon]

Button saying take actionThe National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA) and the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC) are writing to comment on the scope of Opinion M-37050 (M opinion) proposed by the DOI US Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service). The M opinion on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) interprets the take of a migratory bird, its nest, or eggs that is incidental to another lawful activity as not in violation of the MBTA, and that the MBTA’s criminal provisions do not apply to those activities.

The IWRC and NWRA are international not-for-profit organizations based in the United States, with memberships extending to Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and India. Our 2,000+ members include wildlife veterinarians and rehabilitators, wildlife biologists, animal behaviorists, government officials, and academicians from institutions across the world. Our members provide expertise in migratory bird conservation and welfare, often at the forefront of where humans and wild animals interact.

NWRA and the IWRC commend the Service for their work in the delivery of the vision of those who enacted the MBTA. The achievements seen over the past 100 years of guidance by the Service on this foundational bird conservation law are well-documented. The increased numbers and distribution of many species—including snowy egrets, peregrine falcons, California condors, brown pelicans, and Kirtland’s warblers—once threatened with extinction, are success stories of which the Service should be duly proud. The bald eagle is a fine example; a species with a success story that is recognized by every American. The bald eagle has been allowed to recover and recolonize much of its former territory, so that it is now a common sight in many areas where it had once been extirpated.

The benefits from reasonable enforcement of the MBTA have resulted in protections leading to population recovery and benefits for the communities in which these birds live. The Service recognizes the financial benefits provided by wildlife tourism1. Data collected on the economic benefits of wildlife tourism, and birdwatching in particular, show that:

  • 45 million people watch birds around their homes or elsewhere. Wildlife watchers contribute $80 billion to the US economy;
  • Birders spend $41 billion annually on trips and equipment, with local communities benefiting to the tune of $14.9 billion, with 666,000 jobs being created in one year (2011).
  • One example is the $300 million contribution made by wildlife tourism to the Rio Grande Valley economy, leading to economic benefits in terms of income and jobs for the communities in that area.
  • Birds also consume 98% of certain insect pests, resulting in benefits to farming communities.

While wild birds have inherent value, we recognize that they are also an important economic and social driver, engaging people with nature and the environment. The 2009 State of the Bird Report, issued by the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI), of which US Fish & Wildlife Service is a report partner, stated that “[B]irds are bellwethers of our natural and cultural health as a nation—they are indicators of the integrity of the environments that provide us with clean air and water, fertile soils, abundant wildlife, and the natural resources on which our economic development depends…It is imperative that we redouble our efforts now, before habitat loss and degradation become even more widespread, intractable, and expensive to solve.2 The 2016 State of the Birds report states that conservation success requires that policies be “…based on sound science” in order to “implement effective on-the-ground conservation actions.3 IWRC and NWRA support these statements.

The proposed changes to the MBTA threaten to undo these important, hard-earned successes. The Service’s long history of minimizing risk to migratory birds through the development of guidelines and best practices has been key to reducing sources of bird mortality. Incidental take through destruction of nesting habitats without the requirement of alternative sites being made available threatens to reduce the breeding success of many species and could result in some extinctions, with long-term ecological consequences. The removal of adult birds and/or nests with young will have welfare impacts for these animals, leading to species declines. 

The destruction of nesting and roosting areas without requiring replacements to be created will likely result in a reduction in sites where these birds can be seen. This will have negative consequences for local community businesses that depend on wildlife tourism and result in a loss of income and jobs in areas where alternative employment is limited.

Wildlife veterinarians and rehabilitators see the direct impact on wildlife populations in our work. The impact to the wildlife rehabilitation community will also be great. The M-opinion has already increased the number of otherwise healthy birds admitted to rehabilitation facilities due to the destruction of nests or roosting areas, such as the 101 young cliff swallows presented to wildlife rehabilitators for care after their nests were destroyed during a single bridge renovation in Wisconsin in the summer of 2019. We anticipate this trend will continue and perhaps further increase as federal executive administration documents show that even voluntary mitigation is being discouraged.

The 2019 State of the Birds report4 records population declines in many species, and the peer-reviewed paper, Decline of the North American Avifauna by Rosenberg, et al,5 shows that declines are not restricted to rare and threatened species—many species once considered common and widespread are also diminished.

The threats birds encounter today—rapid industrialization and habitat loss—are not those faced by birds when the MBTA was adopted. The M-opinion no longer requires bird deaths to be reported to the Service, functionally eliminating the ability to measure the impacts of the rule change. The scale and extent of the impact of the M-opinion will be largely unknown. 

By reducing the protection of our native wild birds, the proposed rulemaking will add to their decline. The role of the Service and the MBTA is to protect the precious resource of wild birds; the M-opinion and its codification into law reverses this protection, placing bird populations at higher risk.

The NWRA and IWRC are opposed to the proposed MBTA rule-making change due to the negative impacts it will have on wild birds, their habitat, and the communities that value birds as a critical natural resource. We ask you to consider these comments as part of the review and we would be happy to discuss this further, if that would be of assistance.




Lisa Smith                                   Adam Grogan

President NWRA                         President IWRC

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1  https://www.fws.gov/birds/bird-enthusiasts/bird-watching/valuing-birds.php

2 https://archive.stateofthebirds.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/State_of_the_Birds_2009.pdf

3 https://www.stateofthebirds.org/2016/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/SoNAB-ENGLISH-web.pdf

4 https://www.stateofthebirds.org/2019/

5 Rosenberg et al, 2019 https://science.sciencemag.org/content/366/6461/120




Media Contacts:

Kai Williams, Executive Director, The IWRC Office:  (866) 871-1869 x1 Email:  director@theiwrc.org 

Lisa Smith, President, NWRA Email: president@nwrawildlife.org

The International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council

The IWRC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through training and resources on wildlife rehabilitation. The organization’s mission statement “We provide evidence-based education and resources on wildlife rehabilitation to move the field of wildlife rehabilitation forward; to promote wildlife conservation and welfare; and to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts worldwide, through better understanding of wild animal ecology, behavior, and welfare.” Wildlife rehabilitation is the act of providing temporary care for injured, sick or orphaned wildlife with the goal of releasing them back into the wild. By providing unique insights into issues affecting wildlife populations, species, and habitats, wildlife rehabilitation contributes to wildlife conservation and welfare worldwide.


National Wildlife Rehabilitation Association

The NWRA was born in 1982 at the first National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association Symposium in Naperville, Illinois. The rich diversity of expertise and interest represented at the symposium provided a firm foundation for a national organization designed to meet the needs of wildlife rehabilitators. As the mission statement says , NWRA is “dedicated to improving and promoting the profession of wildlife rehabilitation and its contributions to preserving natural ecosystems.”

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