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The coalition wrote:

By Jamie Rappaport Clark

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) enacted by Congress turns 100 this year, and has been read by federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and the courts, as protecting birds not just from unauthorized hunting but also from being trapped, poisoned or mangled by industrial operations. Migratory birds are increasingly threatened by land development, habitat loss and the effects of climate change.


On Dec. 22, 2017, the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior issued a legal memorandum reversing the longstanding interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to exempt industry—including the oil and gas industry, powerlines and wind energy—from compliance with the U.S.’ commitment under international agreements to protect migratory birds.


Snow geese.

This new legal interpretation flies in the face of what every administration since the 1970’s has held to be true: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act strictly prohibits the unregulated killing of birds. Instead, Trump’s Interior Department has gone out of its way to turn the act’s straightforward language into a giant loophole for companies whose activities routinely kill birds.

Thursday, a bipartisan coalition of 17 former Department of the Interior officials spanning the last 40 years sent a letter to Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke condemning a legal reinterpretation of the MBTA that could result in the unregulated killing of birds.

The coalition wrote:

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.

Birds are, quite literally, the proverbial “canary in the coal mine.” 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.

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 countries’ 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.”


Jamie Rappaport Clark

As former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton, I signed this letter because it is shameful that the Trump administration will celebrate the milestone of 100 years of protecting migratory birds by weakening this critical bedrock environmental law at the expense of wildlife.


Jamie Rappaport Clark

From the remotest wilderness to right in our own backyards, birds connect us to the glory of our natural surroundings. We must protect them today, and for the future.

Jamie Rappaport Clark has been with Defenders of Wildlife since February 2004 as executive vice president. In October 2011, she took the reins as president and CEO.

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On his trip to Asia, President Trump ate shark fin soup in Vietnam. While this meal is considered a status symbol, delicacy and a sign of wealth in Asian culture (it can sell for over $100 a serving in restaurants), the continued consumption of shark fin soup has a devastating effect on shark populations around the world.

Shark fin soup is believed by some to have medicinal healing properties and its proponents view its consumption as a cultural right. Sharks rely heavily on international and regional treaties for protections and management measures, and in some countries domestic regulations have been adopted.

On his trip to Asia, President Trump ate shark fin soup in Vietnam. While this meal is considered a status symbol, delicacy and a sign of wealth in Asian culture (it can sell for over $100 a serving in restaurants), the continued consumption of shark fin soup has a devastating effect on shark populations around the world.

Shark fin soup is believed by some to have medicinal healing properties and its proponents view its consumption as a cultural right. Sharks rely heavily on international and regional treaties for protections and management measures, and in some countries domestic regulations have been adopted.


Sharks are amazing ocean predators, and they’re some of the most powerful creatures in the sea. But 25 percent of shark species are currently listed as endangered, threatened or near threatened by extinction. Because sharks are generally slow to reproduce, the constant onslaught of threats that include shark finning, bycatch and threats to the ocean ecosystem are causing a severe decline in populations that are already hard to monitor.

While it is impossible to know how many sharks are killed yearly due to illegal and unrecorded catch, it is estimated that up to 73 million sharks are killed annually by “finning” alone—a brutal practice that involves cutting off a shark’s fins, usually while it is still alive, and throwing the body back overboard where it bleeds to death, drowns or is eaten. This is clearly a cruel practice, and the fact that millions of sharks are being killed is also a main issue for wildlife conservation.

The U.S., overall a low market for shark fin soup compared to countries in Asia, still has some ways to go before it is completely removed from the shark fin trade. Especially when the president dines on shark fin soup and previously served it at his failed Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In response to someone saying they would not visit the restaurant until shark fin soup was removed from the menu, Trump tweeted:

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/statuses/352796146927796226

In 2000, the Shark Finning Prohibition Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It banned the possession on U.S. ships of shark fins without the carcass and made it illegal to partake in shark finning within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.

In 2007, after five years of working with Mexico’s government, Defenders of Wildlife helped pass legislation that outlawed shark finning in Mexico’s waters.

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the Shark Conservation Act of 2010, which forbade the purchase of shark fins from other vessels, to close a loophole in the Shark Finning Prohibition Act.

In 2011, Defenders of Wildlife, along with a coalition of 12 other environmental organizations, began a campaign to pass a law banning the possession, trade, sale and distribution of shark fins in California. As a result of these efforts, on Oct. 7, 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB376 into law.

In June 2016, Congress introduced the bipartisan Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act. The bill would ban the buying and selling of shark fins in the U.S. altogether and impose fines of up to $100,000 for participating in the shark fin trade.

Just last month at the Conference of the Parties to the Conference of Migratory Species of Wild Animals in Manila, Philippines, Defenders of Wildlife successfully advocated for six species of sharks to gain international collaboration for conservation—the whale shark, dusky shark, blue shark, angelshark, guitarfish and white spotted wedgefish. This week, Defenders of Wildlife is at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas in Marrakesh, Morocco, where we are advocating for fins attached to sharks as well as promoting prohibition of retention measures for mako sharks that are severely overfished.

In order to stop shark finning, we must work to reduce the demand for the fins—which means publicly denouncing the practice and showing support for conservation efforts. Former NBA star Yao Ming has led the charge to gain visibility for this issue along with Leonardo DiCaprio, Jackie Chan, Rosario Dawson, Edward Norton, James Cameron, Richard Branson and Jackson Browne. Chefs Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Gordon Ramsey and others have pledged never to serve shark fin soup in their restaurants.

And yet President Trump imprudently, obtusely and very publicly dines on a dish causing appalling harm to our already fragile ocean ecosystem.

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U.S. Department of the Interior building. Kmf164 / CC-BY-SA-2.5

Defenders of Wildlife recently obtained a copy of Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke's "Top 10 Priorities" for his department (text version). These priorities are reflected in the department's recently leaked draft 2018–2022 Strategic Plan, but the priorities themselves are noteworthy for their strikingly euphemistic tone.

They are written to evoke a responsive, progressive Interior Department serving the country by protecting our natural heritage and ensuring sensible use of our natural resources. And there's the problem. All ten priorities are entirely disconnected from Interior's actions to date. Following is our take on the doublespeak nature of the secretary's Top 10 Priorities.

Defenders of Wildlife recently obtained a copy of Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke‘s “Top 10 Priorities” for his department (text version). These priorities are reflected in the department’s recently leaked draft 2018–2022 Strategic Plan, but the priorities themselves are noteworthy for their strikingly euphemistic tone.

They are written to evoke a responsive, progressive Interior Department serving the country by protecting our natural heritage and ensuring sensible use of our natural resources. And there’s the problem. All ten priorities are entirely disconnected from Interior’s actions to date. Following is our take on the doublespeak nature of the secretary’s Top 10 Priorities.


1. Create a conservation stewardship legacy second only to Teddy Roosevelt.

To date, Zinke is doing the exact opposite of Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy. Roosevelt, the father of federal land conservation, established 150 national forests, 51 wildlife refuges, five national parks and 18 national monuments. Under Zinke, the Interior Department could strip protections from as much as 11.3 million acres of public lands and 218 million acres of marine environment designated as national monuments by presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. Interior is also dismantling wildlife refuges and undermining laws that protect imperiled species on public lands.

If the secretary really wants to rival Teddy Roosevelt, he could start by abandoning the attack on our national monuments. Then he could follow up by protecting more land, air, water and wildlife under Interior’s trust, as supported by huge majorities of Americans. Otherwise, history may judge him not as Roosevelt’s peer, but his antithesis.

2. Sustainably develop our energy and natural resources.

“Sustainability” is a word that Zinke uses repeatedly, but doesn’t appear to understand. Zinke recently joked to the National Petroleum Council that “[f]racking is proof that God’s got a good sense of humor and he loves us.” In March, Zinke cancelled a 2016 moratorium on new coal leases, and in July the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced a new round of leasing in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Zinke has also announced offshore oil and gas leases in a 77 million-acre region of the Gulf of Mexico, in an area still recovering from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Pretending that finite sources of dirty energy will secure a sustainable future for the American people, the joke is on him, but the harm posed to wildlife and wild places is no laughing matter.

3. Restore trust and be a good neighbor.

Zinke has proven himself anything but trustworthy with his closed-door dealings and speeches, refusal to publicly release his national monuments report, ethically questionable business travel, suspicious relationships with Political Action Committees and the distinct appearance of giving special attention to special interests.

Trust is a two-way street. Zinke has demonstrated mistrust of—and has outright ignored—state and local stakeholders on the years-long public process for balancing greater-sage grouse conservation with other public lands uses across 10 western states. His decision to revise the plans is a triple-whammy: wasting four years and $45 million invested in developing the existing plans, throwing the region into years of uncertainty while new plans are created, and increasing the likelihood that sage-grouse populations will continue their long-term decline and require protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Zinke is even considering drilling adjacent to and even inside 30 national parks, which would not be neighborly to the wildlife and habitat the Interior Department is responsible to protect.

4. Ensure tribal sovereignty means something.

Tribal sovereignty doesn’t mean “something,” it means that tribes have an inherent right “to make their own laws and be governed by them.” Unfortunately, Zinke failed to learn the lesson from Standing Rock with his recommendation to downsize Bears Ears National Monument, which could lift protections from thousands of Native American cultural artifacts and sacred sites. Member tribes in the Bears Ears Commission, established by President Obama to guide management of the monument, support Bears Ears remaining intact with its current level of protection.

5. Increase revenues to support the department and national interests.

The most important way the secretary can support his department is to request a budget increase … but he appears to have other intentions. According to Zinke’s June 2017 Senate testimony, he is seeking to cut budgets across most of Interior: 11 percent from the National Park Service, 13 percent from BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Geological Survey, and nearly half from the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation. Rather than requesting the funding, Zinke is pushing for drilling in one of America’s last great wild places, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, though his interest in Arctic drilling may be ideological rather than fiscal. Zinke recently rescinded a rule that would have helped ensure that companies pay fair market value for oil, gas and coal they extract on federal lands, depriving taxpayers of $75 million in revenues from energy extraction nationwide. So far, the secretary’s most concrete proposal for raising revenue has been to nearly triple the entrance fees American families pay at popular national parks.

6. Protect our people and the border.

Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, administers our international borders, not the Interior Department. That aside, Zinke should be paying attention to the devastating effects the administration’s proposed border wall would have on wildlife and habitat, including endangered species and several national wildlife refuges.

7. Strike a regulatory balance.

Just last week, as directed by President Trump‘s Executive Order 13783, “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” the Interior Department issued a report identifying conservation, safety and public health policies as potentially “burdensome” on domestic energy production—particularly oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy sources. The report targeted a broad array of foundational protections for wildlife and habitat, including scientific consultation to protect imperiled species; protective designations for public lands and waters; public planning and appeals processes; and legislative and administrative requirements for permitting, exploring, siting, developing and transporting fossil fuels. Unfortunately, what Zinke’s Interior Department considers burdensome is our country’s attempt to balance energy development and natural resource conservation nationwide.

8. Modernize our infrastructure.

Zinke is asking for $1.6 billion in Interior budget cuts (see priority #5), while the National Park System has a $12 billion maintenance backlog, and the National Wildlife Refuge System is suffering a $2.7 billion backlog. The extreme budget cuts that the secretary has requested for managing agencies is not going to help alleviate these costly deficits. On a related note, the president’s cancellation of his predecessor’s requirement that federal projects like roads and bridges be built to withstand the impacts of climate change *might* result in a few projects being built faster, but only until the next big storm. That’s not the same as “modernizing.”

9. Reorganize the department for the next 100 years.

Zinke’s notion of reorganization could have lasting, negative effects on both the department and constituencies it serves. Within just a few short months of his taking office, more than 50 senior Interior staff have been “involuntarily reassigned,” often to positions for which they have no expertise or experience. One scientist who was moved into an accounting position told the Washington Post that he was “clearly retaliated against” for “speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities.” Zinke himself has testified that he supports “an estimated reduction of roughly 4,000 full time equivalent staff from 2017,” and is reportedly planning to upend hundreds more employees’ lives by moving the headquarters of three agencies from Washington, DC to Denver.

10. Achieve our goals and lead our team forward.

We are not clear what Zinke’s goals for the department are moving forward, especially after he compared his staff to pirates and said he’s “got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.”

Zinke needs to refocus the Department of the Interior to carry out its duty to the American people to manage and protect our county’s natural resources, historical sites and cultural heritage. Faithfully implemented, some of his ten priorities could be useful for guiding the department’s work.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “[o]f all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” Defenders of Wildlife is determined to hold Zinke and the Interior Department to the high standards of the conservation image in which it was created.

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