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Know the West

84-year-old bird law no match for the military

  The United States has once again declared itself to be above international law — this time, a law aimed at protecting birds.

Last April, a federal judge ordered all branches of the military to comply with the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a law that protects 850 species of birds through agreements with Mexico, Canada, Russia and Japan. One month earlier, the judge had ruled in favor of environmental groups that sued to stop the Navy from practicing bombing exercises on a Pacific island home to more than a dozen species of migratory birds.

But instead of obeying the judge’s ruling, the military took its case to Congress. And, in mid-November, Congress exempted the U.S. armed forces from the Bird Treaty Act.

The new law is “good for the U.S. government — and for birds in the long run,” says Paul Schmidt, acting assistant director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Migratory Birds and State Programs. According to Schmidt, Congress has required the Department of Defense to develop a plan to “identify, minimize and mitigate” its impacts on the birds.

Environmental groups, which were not allowed to comment before Congress, worry this law will not be the last to fall by the wayside. “(The military) will be back in Congress (this) session, saying, ‘Unless you exempt us from environmental laws, national security will be compromised,’ ” says Paul Achitoff, an attorney with Earthjustice. “But (the law is) almost 90 years old and we’ve managed to defend ourselves militarily through a number of wars without changing (it).”