Clinton Orders Federal Agencies to Protect Migratory Birds

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 12, 2001 (ENS) - President Bill Clinton issued a landmark Executive Order on Thursday that requires all federal agencies to avoid or minimize the impacts of their actions on migratory birds, and to take active steps to protect birds and their habitat.

The Executive Order directs each federal agency whose actions harm or could harm migratory birds to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to develop an agreement to conserve those birds.


Agencies whose activities affect beaches and river banks will be required to account for their impacts on shorebirds like this killdeer (Photo by Kip Evans, courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
USFWS Director Jamie Rappaport Clark hailed the President's order, calling it an important step for conservation. At a time when populations of many migratory bird species are in decline, the active participation of the Federal government can make a significant difference for their survival, she said.

"This Executive Order is a clear statement of the Administration's commitment to migratory bird conservation, and a recognition that the Federal government must lead the way in incorporating wildlife conservation into its actions whenever possible. By taking actions to protect migratory birds, Federal agencies can demonstrate to the nation that doing so is not only the right thing to do, but also something that, with modest effort, can improve the environment for both wildlife and people," Clark said.

The Executive Order does not alter any agency's overall mission or responsibilities, and directs agencies to conserve migratory birds within existing budget parameters. No significant impacts on state or local governments, private organizations or individuals are expected from the order.


Wintering in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, the endangered golden-cheeked warbler may migrate across numerous borders to get to its breeding grounds in Texas (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Federal agencies, in consultation with the USFWS, will develop protocols intended to guide future agency regulatory actions and policy decisions, renewal of permits, contracts or other agreements, and the creation of or revisions to land management plans.

In addition to avoiding or minimizing impacts to migratory bird populations, agencies will be expected to take steps including restoring and enhancing habitat, preventing or reducing pollution affecting birds, and incorporating migratory bird conservation into agency planning processes whenever possible.

Most bird species in the U.S. are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918. The MBTA protects birds that live, reproduce or migrate within or across international borders at some point during their life cycle.

Federal courts have concluded that federal agencies are subject to the MBTA's prohibitions on "take" of migratory birds, which includes harm to birds, their eggs and their nests, the Clinton Administration noted. However, some federal entities continue to challenge the scope of the MBTA.

sooty tern

Sooty terns soar over Farallon de Medinilla, a Pacific island where migratory bird nesting grounds are threatened by U.S. military activities (Photo courtesy Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund)
Earlier this month, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the U.S. Navy to halt live fire training on the Pacific Island of Farallon de Medinilla. The USFWS denied a permit to the Navy to cover the effects of the bombing on migratory birds that nest on the island.

The Navy has argued that the MBTA does not apply to federal agencies.

Under the President's Executive Order, within two years each federal agency taking actions that are having, or likely to have, a measurable negative impact on migratory bird populations must develop and implement a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the USFWS for the conservation of migratory bird populations.

The USFWS will develop a schedule for completion of these MOUs within 60 days that gives priority to agencies having the greatest impacts on migratory birds.

Kirtland's warbler

An endangered Kirtland's warbler, one of the rarest birds in the U.S. (Photo by Ron Austing, courtesy USFWS)
The Executive Order is intended to enhance coordination and communication among federal agencies and build upon the progress that has been made in recent years on conservation of migratory birds. For example, the Executive Order will aid in incorporating existing national planning efforts for bird conservation into agency programs.

During the past 30 years, about one-fifth of the bird species native to the U.S. have declined at rates of 2.5 percent per year or more. The trend represents a cumulative decline of more than 50 percent over a span of 30 years.

Declines this large are considered to be biologically meaningful, even for species that are widely distributed and relatively abundant. These losses are not restricted to just one or two groups of birds - birds of grassland, wetland, scrubland and woodland habitats have all been affected.

"Birds are important, not only as a measure of the overall health of our environment, but also to our quality of life and our economy. Protecting them just makes sense," said Clark.

In addition to requiring consultation with the USFWS and consideration of migratory bird conservation for agency actions, the Executive Order also:


Birdwatchers in the U.S. spend billions of dollars on their hobby each year (Photo courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
Aside from their environmental importance, bird related activities are also some of America's most popular pastimes. Bird watching outpaces golf and rivals gardening in terms of the number of participants.

In 1996, more than 63 million people went bird watching, fed birds, or went on trips to watch birds and other wildlife, the USFWS said. They spent an estimated $29 billion on these activities, generating almost $85 billion in related economic activity, creating more than one million jobs and producing $5.2 billion in federal and state tax revenues.