A Hen Agenda for the 117th Congress

Graphics by Jillian Ditner.

From the Autumn 2020 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

The federal government has an important role to play in reversing bird declines. As a Cornell Lab-led study published in the journal Science a year ago noted, conservation legislation has historically “prevented extinctions and promoted recovery of once-depleted bird species.”

The 116th Congress featured the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which established permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF has protected millions of acres in all 50 states since it was signed in 1964 by President Johnson, but funding has been uncertain in recent decades. After passing the Senate and the House with bipartisan support, President Trump signed the Act.

“We’re here today to celebrate the passage of truly landmark legislation that will preserve America’s majestic natural wonders,” said President Trump at the signing ceremony on Aug. 4, 2020. “This is a very big deal. And from an environmental standpoint … there hasn’t been anything like this since Teddy Roosevelt, I suspect.”

Hopefully the Great American Outdoors Act provides momentum for the next Congress. The U.S. federal government can be an engine of recovery for America’s birds, but it will require strong action in the House and Senate. Right from the start of the 117th Congress, there will be plenty of opportunities to do so.

Legislative Actions to Benefit Birds

The Congressional Review Act

The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to overturn agency rules finalized within 60 legislative days of the end of a presidential term. The recent rule changes to remove incidental take from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act fall within the time frame for CRA action and are eligible to be overturned by the 117th Congress.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act passed the House with bipartisan support in July 2020 and may yet pass the Senate in the 116th Congress. If not, RAWA will be reintroduced in the next Congress. RAWA tackles habitat loss—the driving factor in North America’s bird declines—by sending $1.4 billion annually in conservation funding to state and tribal wildlife agencies. It would enable all 50 states and five U.S. territories to implement their conservation plans for designated species of greatest conservation need (game and nongame species alike), including more than 700 bird species.

The Migratory Bird Protection Act

The Migratory Bird Protection Act was introduced in the House in January 2020 and attracted nearly 100 bipartisan cosponsors by offering a legislative fix to keep incidental-take enforcement in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If reintroduced in the next Congress, this bill would direct the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to implement a permitting system for incidental take, thereby incentivizing companies to adhere to best practices in minimizing bird deaths.

Great American Outdoors Act

“Passage of the Great American Outdoors Act is a key example of what can be accomplished by coming together. We have optimism that we can move forward in the 117th Congress with bipartisan conservation priorities for migratory birds.” —Jennifer Cipolletti, director of conservation advocacy, American Bird Conservancy

The Bird Safe Buildings Act

The Bird Safe Buildings Act, introduced by bipartisan coauthors in the 116th Congress, establishes bird-friendly guidelines for federal buildings. The bill, if reintroduced in the next Congress, includes building guidelines known to lower the risk of bird collision, such as reducing glass reflections and nighttime lighting. Dr. Chris Sheppard, collisions program director at the American Bird Conservancy, says: “This bill is a game changer. More than 20 states, counties, and municipalities have passed bird-friendly building legislation, but recognition of this issue at the federal level will set an example for the entire U.S.A.”

The National Grasslands Conservation Act

The National Grasslands Conservation Act is a proposal spearheaded by the National Wildlife Federation, with hopes for a bill to be introduced in the next Congress. The proposal addresses habitat loss among grassland birds, a group that has lost half its population since 1970, with a new federal grasslands policy modeled after the highly successful North American Wetlands Conservation Act. A grasslands act would create a federal grasslands strategy, provide dedicated funding for grasslands conservation and restoration, and encourage U.S. government cooperation with Canada and Mexico on grasslands conservation.

Research and text by student editorial assistant Anil Oza and Gustave Axelson, with support from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Science Communication Fund. Artwork and design by Jillian Ditner. Reviews and input contributed by Lynn Scarlett, former deputy secretary of the interior under president George W. Bush; Jay Branegan, senior fellow at the Lugar Center, which was founded by former U.S. Senator Richard G. Lugar; and Ya-Wei Li, Director of Biodiversity at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center.

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