For the Birds Radio Program: One Step Forward, One Step Backward: Parrot Law

Original Air Date: Oct. 30, 2003

Why are we suddenly taking more steps backward than forward in environmental protections?

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I was a little girl during the 50s and 60s. On summer nights, the DDT truck roared down my block, yellow lights flashing as the girls in my family ran to shut the windows before the awful smell got inside. Meanwhile the boys in the neighborhood ran outside and hopped on their bikes to chase the truck and see who could grab the bars in back first—I’m sure that’s related to my brother now having both prostate and kidney cancer, which had spread to his adrenal glands as well. Back in the 50s and 60s, detergents were so laden with phosphates that when the little creek that ran through our town reached a small dam, huge suds billowed up from the churning water and floated through the air. Particulates in the air were so toxic that mothers warned their children against catching snowflakes on our tongues, and car emissions were so filthy that new-fallen snow hardly stayed white for hours, much less days. Ours was not the only town in America that was polluted—Lake Erie was considered dead, and the month I graduated from high school, June of 1969, the Cuyahoga River, flowing through Cleveland, Ohio, actually caught fire.

But back then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was doing an admirable job of preventing the extinction of the Whooping Crane. This magnificent bird’s entire population had dwindled to fewer than 20 in 1941. Intensive management had begun in the 30s, but by 1959, the population had crept up only to 33, still teetering on the very brink of extinction. But thanks to decades of dedication and hard work, soon there will be three established populations—the remaining natural population of birds that breed in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and winter in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, a non-migratory flock that spends the entire year in central Florida, and the new migratory flock being established right now, with birds raised at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and being trained to migrate to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Right now there are 454 individual cranes living on the planet, 320 in the wild and 134 in captivity—still a fraction of their population in the 1800s, but they’re making ground.

But even as the cranes have new hope, we’ve lost the Ivory-billed Warbler, Bachman’s Warbler, and Dusky Seaside Sparrow forever, and several birds such as the California Condor, Black-capped Vireo and California Gnatcatcher are still gravely endangered.

For the past three years, I’ve been feeling a kind of shell shock as good laws and regulations that evolved with strong bipartisan support after decades of environmental degradation, laws that did a darned good job of cleaning up the air and water and restoring at least a few endangered and threatened species, have one by one been emasculated and even set aside by an administration that doesn’t know how to say no to corporate interests. One of the most successful laws was the one that prohibited sale of wild birds for the pet trade. This law has given at least a tiny ray of hope to some badly endangered parrot species from the tropics. Before this law was passed, the US had become the largest importer of exotic birds for the pet trade, leading to both poaching and to cutting down trees in pristine habitat to raid the nests. Although the law hasn’t stopped all poaching, it has had a significant impact on it. James Gilardi of the World Parrot Trust says that the Wild Bird Conservation Act has been a shining example of effective legislation, literally saving the lives of millions of parrots.” Both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation organizations have considered the law a huge success. But now suddenly this law, too, is being gutted, as the US Fish & Wildlife Service is preparing to allow imports of parrots caught in the wild in Argentina. A scientific panel from the Association for Parrot Conservation, including Timothy Wright of the Smithsonian Institution, bird veterinarian Darrel Styles of Texas A&M, and Catherine Toft, an expert on conservation biology at the University of California-Davis, says the proposal lacks sufficient scientific data to prove that the birds can be harvested without damaging the native population.

When we make two steps forward and one step backward, we at least make progress. But since the current administration came to power, we’ve been taking zero steps forward to enact new environmental protections, and many steps backwards. People worked darned hard in the 60s and 70s to reverse the horrible trends for wildlife, air, and water so our children would face a better world. What happened?