- Gutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
- Eroding the Endangered Species Act
- Exploiting Public Lands & Prime Habitat
- Dirtying the Waters
- Denying Climate Change
- Disregard for Science
- Reinforcing Environmental Racism & Injustice
A BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF THE 2020 ELECTION
North American birds—the songbirds in our backyards, waterfowl on our lakes, and raptors soaring over our meadows—have already seen their numbers dwindle by 3 billion since 1970. They face new and severe challenges from climate change.
Rather than positive moves to protect our birds, though, the last four years have brought even more threats to their survival through the rollback of environmental rules and regulations (100 of them as of May 2020!) and the disregard for conservation science.
The Trump Administration has gutted both new and old wildlife protections, everything from an Obama-era rule banning lead hunting bullets to the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the country’s first environmental law.
Their attacks on conservation range from the picayune—repealing limits on the sale of plastic bottles in national parks—to the global — such as withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and halting all federal efforts to slow climate change.
The November 2020 election—more than any other in our lifetime—will determine whether the birds we love will survive.
It’s critical that we have a large turnout of voters who care about birds, wildlife, and the environment, especially in swing states.
Join Auk the Vote! to help get environmental voters to the polls!
America’s birding community has always advocated for conservation policies. Low voter turnout, however, is a huge roadblock to success. Auk the Vote! was created to educate and mobilize birders to join Get Out The Vote volunteer efforts.
Experienced voter-registration organizations have found that simple forms of social persuasion—peer-to-peer outreach—have the greatest impact on voter turnout. Our plan is to reach people (using the best available data) who already care deeply about the environment but who seldom vote.
Join the flocks of volunteers (from Auk the Vote! and our allies) reaching out to potential environmental voters in swing states through phone calls, texts, and writing!
Gutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
Since 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has prohibited the slaughter of wild birds and the destruction of their nests. The Trump Administration has proposed narrowing the act so it applies to only the intentional killing of birds—removing penalties for bird deaths caused by industry actions such as oil spills, uninsulated power lines, or uncovered oil waste pits.
After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed 100,000 birds in 2010, the government used the MBTA to reach a $100 million settlement with BP. While such penalties are rare, the act has been a powerful tool to motivate companies to prevent bird deaths. Now that motivation will be gone.
“Removing that obligation, if it stands, over the next several decades will result in billions of birds being casualties,” said Dan Ashe, former director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Pictured: Passenger Pigeon, extinct 1914
Eroding the Endangered Species Act
Since its enactment in 1973, the Endangered Species Act has been a key tool in preventing extinction of species such as Whooping Cranes and Peregrine Falcons. The Trump Administration made it easier to remove species from the endangered list and weakened protections for “threatened” species, the level just below endangered. They removed a requirement that listing decisions must be based on science, rather than economic concerns, and limited the ability of regulators to consider the effects of climate change in listing a species.
Pictured: Great Auk, extinct 1850
Exploiting Public Lands & Prime Habitat
The Administration has made an across-the-board push to open up public lands to oil drilling and logging, regardless of their value to wildlife and endangered species.
In Alaska, the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—initially protected by President Eisenhower—has been called the Serengeti of North America for its rich wildlife. The Trump Administration lifted a ban on oil drilling there, threatening essential habitat for 200 bird species, including 70 nesting species such as Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swans, and Brant.
They renewed mining leases in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters—breeding grounds for 163 bird species—that had been cancelled by the Obama Administration due to the risk of acid leaking into the pristine watershed.
They removed 2 million acres from the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, opening that land up to development. Grand Staircase-Escalante is home to more than 200 bird species, including the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and California Condor, while Bears Ears provides habitat for climate-threatened species such as Golden Eagles, Hairy Woodpeckers, and Mountain Bluebirds.
They are trying to roll back protections for the Greater Sage-Grouse, whose numbers have declined from 400,000 to 150,000. In 2015, the federal government joined ten states and multiple stakeholder groups in a plan to limit oil drilling in prime grouse habitat. The Trump Administration abandoned the agreement and opened 9 million acres to oil and gas drilling. In May 2020, in response to a lawsuit by conservationists, a federal judge struck down the administration’s move and nullified 440 new oil leases.
Dirtying the Waters
The Trump Administration proposed opening most of America’s coastal waters to offshore oil and gas drilling, a move that was blocked by federal courts. They’ve recommended shrinking three large marine protected areas to allow more commercial fishing, threatening fish populations vital to seabirds. One of those protected areas, the Rose Atoll near American Samoa, is the breeding ground for 97 percent of seabirds in the region.
The administration removed protections from most wetlands and millions of miles of streams, which will reduce livable habitat for over 130 species of wetland-dependent birds. Farmers and developers no longer need to seek permits to fill in seasonal wetlands like the Great Plains “prairie potholes,” so heavily used by breeding waterfowl that they’re called “America’s duck factory.”
Pictured: Carolina Parakeet, extinct 1939
Denying Climate Change
The single biggest long-term threat to birds’ survival is climate change, as documented in National Audubon’s landmark 2019 study that found 64% of North American species at risk of climate-related extinction. The U.S. should be a leader in the fight to reduce global emissions, but over the past four years has become a major obstacle.
Most significantly, the Trump Administration is in the process of withdrawing the U.S. from the global Paris climate accord. They’ve weakened fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, and revoked California’s longstanding ability to set its own, stricter emissions standards.
The administration repealed Obama-era limits on carbon emissions from coal plants, leaving it up to states to decide what—if anything—they want to do about emissions. They’re proposing changes to the landmark National Environmental Protection Act—originally signed by President Nixon—so that federal agencies will no longer have to take climate change into account when assessing the environmental impacts of highways, pipelines, and other infrastructure projects.
One of the very first acts of the administration in January 2017 was removing all mention of climate change from the White House web site. Since then, the backward moves have gone on and on, from cancelling a requirement that oil companies report methane emissions to weakening energy-efficient standards for light bulbs.
Pictured: Eskimo Curlew, no confirmed sightings since 1963
Disregard for Science
The Trump Administration has marginalized the role of science in decision-making, including decisions that affect wildlife and the environment. Scientists whose research doesn’t support the administration’s pro-industry political goals are muzzled or sidelined. “To talk about climate risk when connected to human activity is now a no-no if you want to get government funding,” a climate scientist who left his federal job told the New York Times.
Seven hundred scientists left the Environmental Protection Agency in the first three years of the administration; only 350 of those positions were filled. Science-focused advisory committees on climate science, marine protected areas, and invasive species were disbanded. The administration set page limits on environmental impact statements and reduced the amount of time available for public comment on environmental issues.
The marginalization of science tilts the decision-making scales in favor of industry lobbyists. When scientific data is buried and climate change deemed a forbidden topic, there’s no way to identify at-risk bird species and protect them.
Pictured: Heath Hen, extinct 1932
Reinforcing Environmental Racism & Injustice
Throughout the past century, low-income communities—particularly communities of color—have borne the brunt of America’s pollution. Landfills, polluting industries, and Superfund hazardous waste sites are disproportionately located in poor communities of color. Black Americans are exposed to 1.5 times as much particulate matter in the air as whites, contributing to high rates of asthma and other lung diseases.
The U.S. EPA set up an Office of Environmental Justice in the 1990s to combat such inequities. The Trump Administration first tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the office, and after Congress prevented its elimination, is now trying to cut its budget by 71 percent.
The Administration’s broad assault on environmental regulations hurts all low-income communities but is particularly deadly for people of color. For instance, rollback of clean-water rules hurts majority-Black communities such as Flint, Michigan, where the drinking water is contaminated by lead. The Administration’s refusal to ban the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos endangers Latinx farm workers who are exposed to it every day. Trump’s recent moves to weaken the National Environmental Protection Act will make it harder for low-income communities everywhere to protest new freeways, power plants, and pipelines in their neighborhoods.
The Trump Administration has not just halted progress in reducing environmental injustice; it is moving the country backwards and setting the stage for more disenfranchisement, pollution, illness, and death.
Pictured: Black Mamo, Extinct 1907
These are just some of the federal assaults on birds, the environment, & our country’s most vulnerable communities over the past four years.
The Trump Administration has reduced enforcement of existing anti-pollution laws. They’re packing the courts with anti-regulatory judges who make it harder for conservationists to win legal cases. And they’ve filled key government roles with conflict-of-interest-ridden figures from polluting and extractive industries: as the Associated Press reported in 2018, nearly half of Trump EPA hires were lobbyists or lawyers for chemical manufacturers, fossil-fuel producers, and other corporate interests. The fox is not just guarding the henhouse; it’s tearing down the henhouse walls.
For all these reasons, November 2020 is a pivotal election. Climate change will continue to accelerate unless we take action now; habitat and species lost to drilling or development over the next four years will not be recovered; anti-regulatory judges appointed now will shape our ability to protect wildlife through the legal system for decades; increased pollution will have lifelong health impacts, especially on low-income communities and communities of color.
No elected official will be perfect. Conservationists will always want more than Washington is willing to provide. But there is a clear choice this year: Do we elect an administration that has an open ear to environmental concerns, understands the need for environmental justice, respects science, and recognizes the urgency of combating climate change? Or do we sit back and allow a continuation of this wholesale betrayal of our natural heritage and all who cherish it?
First of all, make sure you are registered to vote! Sign up for an absentee ballot if that’s possible in your state—it’s a safer and more convenient way to vote in this era of Covid-19. Make sure your family, neighbors, and friends have registered and applied for absentee ballots too.
Then volunteer to make sure other people’s environmental votes are counted too! Join Auk the Vote! to stay informed and motivated:
- Volunteer to mobilize potential environmental & environmental-justice voters in swing states through easy means such as phone banking, texting, and letter writing.
- Spread the word about Auk the Vote! among your birding friends, your local birding club, and everyone you know who cares about the environment. Share information about Auk the Vote! by email, in your club/chapter newsletter, or on social media. This is a non-partisan effort focused solely on getting people to vote—not endorsing candidates—so it’s something even non-political organizations can support.
- Join a fun get-out-the-vote event — or even host one of your own! For instance, we can help you organize a Zoom meeting that combines a bird trivia contest with writing postcards to potential voters.
Please join us! The actions we take between now and November will make a difference for decades to come… for the future of birds, for the health of our communities, and for the world we’ll be leaving our children and grandchildren.