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The Government’s Word: Should We Trust It?

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

by Sarah Falen

Americans trust the U.S. government less and less. In fact, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in the federal government hovers around 40 percent. Yet, with the revocation of the Trump administration’s rule which prohibits prosecution for accidentally harming migratory birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), the Biden administration is asking citizens to do just that, “trust” the federal government.

People involved in industries such as energy or agriculture have a clear understanding of how environmental legislation, originally passed with the best intention, has been weaponized to negatively affect their livelihoods. One of the lesser known, but just as dangerous environmental swords is the MBTA. 

While it is easy to see that energy industries, such as oil and gas, wind or even solar would be impacted by the Biden decision, this act has the potential for very serious impacts on the agriculture industry.

The MBTA is a statute which allows for the criminal prosecution of any person who “incidentally takes” a migratory bird. To understand the breadth of this act, there are two important concepts. 

First, nearly all birds in the U.S. are considered migratory. Second, what constitutes an “incidental take?” The MBTA states “it [is] unlawful at any time, … to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, … any migratory bird…” 16 U.S.C. § 703(a). 

In reading this language, it would make sense this act is referring to someone who intends to kill a migratory bird. That commonsense reading is what the Trump MBTA rule enforced – only those engaged in an action that purposefully “takes” a migratory bird would be subject to fines and prison time. This is not how the Biden administration reads the same language.

According to the Biden administration, even if a person is doing something that accidentally harms a migratory bird, a person can still be criminally liable. Thus, someone can be prosecuted for an action or inaction that is otherwise legal, but just so happens to “take” a migratory bird.

We should all be concerned about the Biden administration allowing “incidental take” to be prosecuted because there is no limit on what can be prosecuted. This means if a farmer uses a pesticide which is legally administered and a migratory bird just so happens to ingest the pesticide, he could be subject to criminal prosecution. The MBTA allows for up to a $5,000 fine or six months in prison for an incidental take.

The scenarios under which a person can accidentally kill a migratory bird are infinite and can be ridiculous. Yet, the government expects us to believe they will only prosecute “foreseeable” accidental killings of migratory birds. It is foreseeable that a bird can ingest a legally administered pesticide. Are farmers now risking prison time for growing the food that feeds America and the world?

The Biden administration has entertained the idea of an “incidental take permit” that might remove some of the liability for birds that are accidentally killed, however they have not developed the idea enough to know what the permit would look like. There aren’t any standards for what actions would be exempt from liability under the permit system, and the MBTA office doesn’t have enough staff to begin handling the undoubtedly thousands of permit applications they will receive.

The government has often implemented rules, promising it will not take advantage of its authority, but time after time this has proven to be just a way to get a rule approved or legislation passed. From wolves and grizzly bears to ever changing definitions of “navigable waters,” the government has proven that its word should not be trusted, and the MBTA is no exception.

Sarah L. Falen is an associate attorney with Budd-Falen Law Offices, LLC. Budd-Falen Law Offices, LLC, has attorneys licensed to practice law in Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

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