Feathered friends under fire

August 31, 2004|By Michael Markarian

BIRDS ARE CITIZENS of the world. They cross national boundaries as easily and thoughtlessly as Baltimoreans cross from the city into the county.

This is why migratory birds are protected by a network of international treaties that have been an integral part of U.S. law since President Woodrow Wilson signed the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918.

So why has Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican, introduced legislation that would gut this bulwark of international conservation by removing "non-native" species of birds from its protection? And why are conservation organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society supporting him?

The answer is the mute swan, one of at least 94 species of allegedly non-native birds that could face extermination if Mr. Gilchrest's bill becomes law.

For years, state officials have been eager to blame mute swans for the destruction of aquatic vegetation in the Chesapeake Bay and, by extension, for the slow death that the bay has been suffering for decades.

The problem is that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' own studies indicate that the small population of mute swans is not causing the damage.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the two leading threats to the bay are agricultural waste run-off (much of it from the corporate poultry farms in Mr. Gilchrest's district) and sewage treatment plants.

But the big industrial chicken producers on the Eastern Shore pull out all of the lobbying stops to defeat any meaningful attempt to control agricultural waste. And who wants to appropriate the money to upgrade sewage treatment capacity? It's much easier to use the swans as the scapegoat.

Current law already allows the killing of birds, "native" or otherwise, in specific locations where they damage agriculture or the environment. But last year, when the DNR tried to kill mute swans in the Chesapeake Bay area, a federal court in Washington stopped the agency. The DNR could not demonstrate that the swans were harming the bay.

And now, in a bid to circumvent the court's ruling, Mr. Gilchrest has stepped in - supported by conservation organizations that appear to be endorsing the "damage to the bay" canard - with legislation that would relieve wildlife agencies of the obligation to base their decisions on science. It would allow them to exterminate mute swans - and dozens of other "non-native" species - indiscriminately.

Nowhere in the treaties to protect migratory birds that the United States has signed with other nations is there any distinction between "native" and "non-native." To the contrary, these treaties were specifically intended to protect birds that fly over different countries. In fact, in 2001, the federal courts carefully reviewed the question of whether non-native species such as mute swans should be excluded from protection, and ruled in favor of their inclusion because the treaties specify "all swans," not just those species that are "native."

The Gilchrest bill undermines the purpose of the migratory bird treaties - to protect birds across the full range of their ancient migratory routes. By proposing to unilaterally rewrite the terms of these treaties - terms negotiated with other countries and accepted in U.S. law for decades - the bill would invite retaliation and pose a threat to international cooperation on a wide range of conservation and environmental issues.

By eliminating a clear, closed list of species that has worked for decades and replacing it with the vague, ill-defined standard of "native," this bill would result only in more litigation. It would force the courts to sort out complicated historical arguments about which bird species were here first, which species deserve to live and which should be systematically exterminated.

Mr. Gilchrest's bill has passed the House Resources Committee, and its companion, introduced by Sen. George V. Voinovich, an Ohio Republican, has passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Both are being rushed through Congress.

With the proliferation of cell phone towers, chronic air and water pollution and ever-diminishing habitats, birds face enough challenges in our perilous world. They don't need the carpet of international protection pulled out from under them. Congress should reject this legislation and leave our migratory bird treaties alone.

Michael Markarian is president of the Fund for Animals, which has an office in Silver Spring.

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