Birder's Eye View

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Law school is NOT in my future

I've been on somewhat of a hiatus the last couple weeks mainly due to the fact that school has taken over my life (and I've been sick as a dog with some kind of  flu/bronchitis-like bundle of joy).

I have also been working on a major project for my Wildlife Policy class, on the topic of international migratory bird policies. Let me just start off by saying I know absolutely nothing about law, nor did I realize how complicated it could be! Now, assuming that most people are like me (terrible assumption, but let's go with it), I'm going to guess that the average Joe doesn't know the first thing about the laws, policies, treaties, and conventions that protect bird species in the US and abroad.

So, I thought I would give a brief overview here, translated into plain English what I had to decipher from a lot of  legal jargon in my research.

I think most of us birders are familiar with the federal law that you can't capture, kill, or take any part of a migratory bird (including bones, feathers, or other remains). Believe it or not, this law is from a treaty passed in 1918, known as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, signed by the US, Canada, and Great Britain to protect species that pass between our countries.

Simple enough, right? But wait, there's more! How do you protect species that migrate between the US and other countries besides Canada and GB, you ask? The answer is simple: sign more treaties.

There are actually five major ones. Before the MBTA, in 1916 the US, Great Britain, and Canada drafted the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds, which is implemented by the MBTA. In 1936 the US signed another treaty with Mexico (the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds and Game Mammals), in 1972 we signed one with Japan (the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds and Birds in Danger of Extinction, and their Environment) and finally in 1976 we signed one with the former Soviet Union (the Convention Concerning the Conservation of Migratory Birds and their Environment). Whew!

Basically, all these treaties and conventions say more or less the same thing: You cannot "take," kill, capture, or harm in any way any migratory bird. There are, of course, special provisions requiring permits for scientific research, establishing hunting seasons for game birds, and exceptions for indigenous subsistence hunters. But for most of us, violating any of these acts will result in hefty fines and/or time in prison.

A major part of my research for this project was in finding specific, related court cases that have been influential in clarifying the treaties. For instance, the issue of "unintentional" baiting came up in a case in 1939, where the defendant argued that he did not mean to attract birds with scattered grain around his agricultural fields -- the court found him guilty anyway, on the grounds that intentionality does not matter under the terms of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Another issue came up with regard native Alaskan subsistence hunters in the 1980s. In the end, it was found that although the treaties do not allow hunting even by indigenous groups, the Fish and Wildlife Service is under no obligation to enforce the rules (and so they don't!). It was later written into the treaty that native subsistence hunters may, in fact, hunt for migratory birds for personal uses such as food and clothing, so long as they don't sell the birds or bird parts, and respect the nesting seasons for certain species.

There are a lot more cases like this (dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens), but I think you get the point.  I'll admit, it's kind of interesting stuff, but more than anything I find it rather frustrating to read about debates over the minute wording of laws, or the conflicting interests of people trying to get around these laws.

One thing is for sure at this point, law school is not in my future. I'll leave that stuff to the experts.

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  • Sure sounds to me like they are more interested in "billing" hours than actually saving wildlife.

    By Blogger Carol, At February 12, 2011 at 12:59 PM  

  • Perhaps that's true. And perhaps I'm just an optimist, but I think for the most part people have good intentions at heart, even in the legal system. The problems come in when people simply have conflicting values and are trying to look out only for themselves (which is why the policymakers have to spend so many hours perfecting the exact wording of the law!).

    It's all very frustrating, but at the same time, quite lovely and inspiring that we do have laws like this to protect wild birds, even if they are flawed! :)

    By Blogger Andrea, At February 13, 2011 at 1:20 PM  

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