Letter from 17 former Interior officials to Secretary Ryan Zinke on new Migratory Bird Treaty Act Policy

In this Jan. 10 letter, a bipartisan group of former Interior officials who worked at the department over the last half-century question Secretary Zinke's new policy on killing birds.

The Honorable Ryan Zinke
Secretary of the Interior
1849 C St., NW
Washington, D.C. 20240

January 10, 2018

Dear Secretary Zinke:
We are all conservation professionals who have formerly served the Department of the Interior, from
1971 to 2017: Deputy Secretaries, Assistant Secretaries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Directors, and
Migratory Bird Conservation Chiefs. We are former Senate-confirmed political appointees, of Republican
and Democratic Presidents, and we are former career civil servants. We are, each and all, very
concerned by the Interior Departmentas December 22, 2017 announcement of a new legal
memorandum (M-37050) reinterpreting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
This legal opinion is contrary to the long-standing interpretation by every administration (Republican
and Democrat) since at least the 1970as, who held that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act strictly prohibits
the unregulated killing of birds. This law was among the first U.S. environmental laws, setting this
nation and continent on the enviable path to conserving our natural resources. It was passed to
implement the first of four bilateral treaties with countries with which we share migratory bird
populations (Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Russia). Its intent, and your obligation in enforcing it, is to
conserve migratory bird populations. Therefore, we respectfully request that you suspend this illconceived opinion, and convene a bipartisan group of experts to recommend a consensus and sensible
path forward. We would be pleased to work with you, involving the public, toward this end.
The Solicitoras opinion takes 41 pages to turn the MBTAas straightforward language a ait shall be
unlawful to hunt, take, capture, kill ... by any means whatever ... at any time or in any manner, any
migratory birda (emphasis added)a into a conclusion that the killing of migratory birds violates the act
only when athe actor [is] engaged in an activity the object of which was to render an animal subject to
human controla (emphasis added).
This is a new, contrived legal standard that creates a huge loophole in the MBTA, allowing companies to
engage in activities that routinely kill migratory birds so long as they were not intending that their
operations would arender an animal subject to human control.a Indeed, as your solicitoras opinion
necessarily acknowledged, several district and circuit courts have soundly rejected the narrow reading of
the law that your Department is now embracing.
We recognize that, at the margin, reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which
prosecutions under the MBTA are appropriate for activities that are not intended to kill birds, but which
are reasonably likely, and indeed, quite likely to kill them. That is why, over the course of our collective
careers, significant progress has been made in defining the limits of this law through refined
interpretations, court decisions, and common sense. Over the years, career professionals and political
leadership in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Department of the Interior, and Department
of Justice have adapted to ensure that the enforcement of this law fairly balances the goal of economic
progress with the impact of that progress on bird populations.
Birds are, quite literally, the proverbial acanary in the coal mine.a How birds fare in the world indicates
how all wildlife and habitat, and by extension human populations, will fare. It is not just poetry that led

Rachel Carson to title her seminal work, Silent Spring. All the past administrations for which we have
worked have struck a balance and worked diligently and in good faith with industries that had significant
impacts on birds, such as oil and gas, coal, electric utilities, commercial fishing, communications,
transportation, national defense, and others to reasonably address unintended take. It can be done. In
fact, it has been done.
Successes in applying this law to minimize the incidental killing of birds are numerous. For example, we
worked with oil producers to ensure that exposed crude oil waste pits were covered with nets to keep
birds from landing in them. We worked to improve the techniques of commercial fishing to reduce the
drowning of seabirds in fishing lines and nets. Additionally, government has used the law to work with
wind energy companies to improve the siting of turbines to avoid and minimize the killing of birds. It
has never been the goal to entirely eliminate the unintentional killing of birds, but when we find
techniques and technologies that can be used at reasonable cost to protect bird populations, we had a
responsibility to do so. Although the proximate reason for the passage of the MBTA may have been to
protect migratory birds from unregulated market hunting (we note the absence of oil waste pits and
wind farms at the time of bill passage), the ultimate reason was the protection of migratory birds.
The MBTA can and has been successfully used to reduce gross negligence by companies that simply do
not recognize the value of birds to society or the practical means to minimize harm. Your new
interpretation needlessly undermines a history of great progress, undermines the effectiveness of the
migratory bird treaties, and diminishes U.S. leadership.
In a world where connections to nature are becoming ever more tenuous, birds are the wildlife that
Americans encounter daily. Whether we are conservationists, birdwatchers, hunters, or just citizens who
enjoy the natural world, conserving birds is a common interest. In addition, we must consider how our
treaty partners in Canada, Mexico, Japan and Russia will view this new interpretation. Only a few years
ago, the U.S. exchanged formal diplomatic notes with Canada reaffirming our countriesa common
interpretation that incidental killing of birds was prohibited by the treaty.
Just as Theodore Roosevelt declared and demonstrated, we, as Federal officials, endeavored to strike a
balance between development and conservation. We recognized that strict liability must be tempered
with common sense notions of reasonable foreseeability and readily available alternatives. We are
anxious to explore this balance and provide you with an approach that we can all support, and one that
will continue the proud record of U.S. leadership in conserving birds.
We await your response.
Sincerely,

Lynn Scarlett
Deputy Secretary of the Interior
President George W. Bush
David J. Hayes
Deputy Secretary of the Interior
Presidents William Clinton and Barack Obama

Nathaniel Reed
Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks
President Richard Nixon
Donald Barry
Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks
President William Clinton
Lyle Laverty
Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks
President George W. Bush
Lynn Greenwalt
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director
Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter
John Turner
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director
President George H. W. Bush
Jamie Rappaport Clark
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director
President William Clinton
Steve Williams
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director
President George W. Bush
Daniel M. Ashe
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director
President Barack Obama
John Rogers
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Chief, Migratory Bird Management (1972-84)
Rollin Sparrowe
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Chief, Migratory Bird Management (1984-89)
Tom Dwyer
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Chief, Migratory Bird Management (1989-93)
Paul Schmidt
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Chief, Migratory Bird Management (1993-99)
Assistant Director Migratory Birds (2003-11)

Jon Andrew
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Chief, Migratory Bird Management (1999-2002)
Robert Blohm
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Chief, Migratory Bird Management (2006-11)
Brad Bortner
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Chief, Migratory Bird Management (2011-17)

CC:
The Honorable Rob Bishop, Chairman, House Committee on Natural Resources
The Honorable RaAol Grijalva, Ranking Member, House Committee on Natural Resources
The Honorable John Barrasso, Chairman, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
The Honorable Tom Carper, Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
The Honorable Lisa Murkowski, Chairwoman, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
The Honorable Maria Cantwell, Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
The Honorable Ed Royce, Chairman, House Committee on Foreign Affairs
The Honorable Eliot Engel, Ranking Member, House Committee on Foreign Affairs
The Honorable Bob Corker, Chairman, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
The Honorable Ben Cardin, Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
The Honorable Rodney Frelinghuysen, Chairman, House Committee on Appropriations
The Honorable Nita Lowey, Ranking Member, House Committee on Appropriations
The Honorable Thad Cochran, Chairman, Senate Committee on Appropriations
The Honorable Patrick Leahy, Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Appropriations
Mr. David Bernhardt, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior
Ms. Aurelia Skipwith, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Fish and Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Department of the
Interior
Mr. Greg Sheehan, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Acting)