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Trump to reverse strict Obama-era policy on bird deaths

The Trump administration, reversing an Obama-era policy, will end the prosecution of wind-turbine owners and others who accidentally kill any of 1,000 species of migratory birds, according to people familiar with the plans.

Under the new legal guidance set to be issued by the Interior Department today, accidental killings of those woodpeckers, warblers, chestnut-cheeked starlings and other migratory birds wouldn’t be considered a violation of a federal law meant to protect them, said the people who asked not to be identified discussing the policy before it was released.

The change is a victory for energy companies and developers that have protested the earlier guidance as unwieldy.

In one of its final acts, the Obama administration’s Interior Department issued a legal opinion concluding the law covers incidental as well as intentional takings of migratory birds. According to that Jan. 10 opinion, the migratory bird act imposes “strict liability,” so a person’s intent doesn’t matter — just that a covered bird has been taken.

The Trump administration withdrew that opinion in February, setting the stage for today’s rewrite.

In the new guidance, the Interior Department lawyers will say that intent matters when it comes to deciding whether bird deaths are a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The century-old law makes it illegal to “pursue, hunt, take, capture” or “kill” any migratory bird, with misdemeanors punishable by as much as six months in prison and fines of up to $15,000.

Critics said the Obama-era policy left too much discretion in the hands of federal prosecutors, giving them the authority to aggressively pursue oil companies and land developers for bird deaths while taking a softer approach when birds die at wind farms and solar arrays.

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