Balancing Use and Conservation of Protected Birds: The Migratory Bird Permits Program
Jason Mercado, USFWS Migratory Birds Program
January 19, 2011
Jason Mercado has always had an affinity for the outdoors, whether playing sports during his eight years in the military, or hiking Minnesota's trails. But he never knew his love of outdoor hobbies would ever lead to a career in conservation.
"My degree was actually focused in communications and sociology, nothing in the natural sciences," Jason said. But after an injury caused him to transfer from the military to the civilian sector, he accepted a position with the Service's Migratory Bird Program. "I thought, what a great opportunity to contribute to wildlife and the natural resources I love to spend time enjoying," he said.
After two years as an administrative assistant, Jason progressed to the world of permits. "My experience working with administrative tasks moved me to apply for a position in the Midwest Region's Migratory Bird Permits division, although I must admit I knew little about the division itself," he said. That's a common perception among many people both internally, and externally of the Service. So I asked Jason the question, "What does the Permits division do to help Migratory Birds?"
Since 2008 when he became a permanent staffer with the division, he's learned the answer. "Without permits, there would be a Wild West situation out there. We allow people to be in line with the law. We give people the ability to do what they need to do in education, business, and outdoor recreation while enforcing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act," Jason said.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which has since been amended to include agreements with Canada, Russia, Mexico and Japan, implemented a convention between the United States and Great Britain to protect migratory birds (today some 800 species) from hunting, capture, and sale. It is the responsibility of the Migratory Birds Permits program to provide a means to balance use and conservation of these protected species. Permits enable the public to engage in legitimate wildlife-related activities that would otherwise be prohibited by law and ensure that such activities are carried out in a manner that safeguards wildlife. Additionally, some permits promote conservation efforts by authorizing scientific research, generating data, or allowing wildlife management and rehabilitation activities to go forward.
Jason says bird rehabilitation is a prime example. Birds that are injured and not able to be released into the wild need rehabilitation facilities. "You don't need a permit to pick up a bird in distress if it is taken directly to rehabilitator - that's what we call the Good Samaritan Clause," he said. The Permits division works side by side with bird rehabilitators across the Region. "I'm amazed with what these people do," he said. Jason told me about a rehabilitator in Illinois who works 20 hours a day, running three rehabilitation facilities in the Chicago area. "The rewarding part of the job is being able to take a bird that is injured, and not able to be released into the wild, and find it a home and a job. In a sense we're a job placement agency for birds."
Many of the permits Jason issues are special purpose permits that allow birds, live or dead, to be used for educational purposes. "Part of our Fish and Wildlife Service mission is to conserve wildlife for the betterment of people today and generations to come," he said. "Permits are a major player in achieving that mission."
Educators may apply for special purpose permits to be allowed to utilize birds otherwise protected under MBTA as educational tools. An example may be a science teacher who would like to collect a bird from the school playground that has died of natural causes to use as an educational tool in the classroom.
More than 70 different types of permits are issued across the nation, and the Midwest Region's Migratory Bird Permits program commonly issues between 15 and 20 of those permit types. Many permits issued in the Midwest Region are issued for religious purposes to Native American tribal members. Eagle parts are an important part of religious ceremonies, and therefore eagle permits are provided to facilitate the use of eagle parts for religious purposes.
Jason explains he works closely with all of the state natural resources agencies, because a permit issued by Service is not valid unless the state's equivalent permit is in place.
"The states can be stricter with their laws, and use the Service's guidelines as a minimum requirement for their permit applicants," he said. Commonly issued permits include those for taxidermy, raptor propagation, education, bird salvage, and depredation. Depredation permits are issued to allow the take of migratory birds which are causing serious damage to public or private property, pose a health or safety hazard, or are damaging agricultural crops or wildlife.
"This winter we have been working with many private individuals who have been experiencing extreme property damage by woodpeckers," Jason said. Permits program staff work closely with USDA APHIS Wildlife Services on depredation permits. USDA APHIS Wildlife Service evaluates the situation to determine the best technique to resolve the issue, whether that is harassment or hazing of the nuisance bird, or if take, and therefore a permit, is necessary.
The winter months are the busiest time of year for the Permits division, since it is the beginning of renewal season for many permittees. Most permits are only authorized for one year before they must be renewed with the agency. This is to ensure permittees stay up to date with the latest regulations and maintain contact with the Permits office.
"In a sense, our office is on the front lines of customer service. We get calls all day long from members of the public, and I really like to be the friendly voice on the end of the line," Jason said. "It's an opportunity to dispel the myth of the typical nonresponsive government employee."
In 2010, the Service's Midwest Region Migratory Bird Permits program issued 2,171 permits, and Jason says he expects the coming year to bring much of the same demand.
"It's a regulatory job, and it does involve a lot of paper-pushing. But in the same token, the Permits program enables the rest of our programs, our partners, and our public so that they can do their jobs."
For more information about the Midwest Region's Migratory Bird Permits program, visit http://www.fws.gov/Midwest/midwestbird/permits.html