This story was originally published by\u00a0Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at\u00a0revealnews.org\u00a0and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at\u00a0revealnews.org\/podcast. Under Republican and Democratic presidents from Nixon through Obama, killing migratory birds, even inadvertently, was a crime, with fines for\u00a0violations\u00a0ranging from $250 to $100 million. The power to prosecute created a deterrent that protected birds and enabled government to hold companies to account for environmental disasters. But in part due to President Donald Trump\u2019s choice for interior secretary \u2014 David Bernhardt, confirmed by the Senate on April 11 \u2014 the wildlife cop is no longer on the beat. Bernhardt pushed a December 2017 legal opinion\u00a0that declared the\u00a01918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act\u00a0applies only when companies kill birds on purpose. Internal government emails obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting provide evidence of federal wildlife agents opting out of investigations and enforcement, citing that policy change as the reason. First enacted to implement a 1916 treaty with Canada, the 1918 law was written to protect migratory birds\u00a0\u2013 as well as their nests, eggs and even feathers \u2013 from being captured, sold or killed \u201cat any time, or in any manner.\u201d\u00a0Similar treaties were signed by the governments of Mexico, Japan and the Soviet Union, now Russia, and included in the law. The reinterpretation of the bird law by the administration may run afoul of these long-standing treaties. The issue was on the agenda of a recent\u00a0 trilateral meeting among the U.S., Canada and Mexico. \u201cThe Government of Canada continues to interpret the century-old Migratory Bird Convention as to prohibiting the incidental take (killing or harming) of migratory birds, their nests and eggs,\u201d said Gabrielle Lamontagne, a spokeswoman for Environment and Climate Change Canada.\u00a0She noted that Canada is analyzing how the reinterpretation of the U.S. law will affect conservation of birds that migrate between the U.S.and Canada. Reveal is awaiting responses from the three other nations that have migratory bird treaties with the U.S. A retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife official who helped negotiate the amendments to the treaties with Canada and Mexico in the 1990s says Trump\u2019s policy is out of step with international obligations. \u201cI think a good argument could be made that the current Interior policy does not comply with the treaty with Canada,\u201d said Paul Schmidt, a 33-year veteran of the Fish and Wildlife Service who was promoted to assistant director under President George W. Bush. Emails obtained by Reveal provide evidence of how the revision is affecting law enforcement in the U.S.\u00a0For example, after a pipeline\u00a0burst\u00a0in Idaho last April, spilling diesel into a pond and wetland, two coolers full of dead birds were dropped off at the Fish and Wildlife office in Boise. In an\u00a0email\u00a0about what to do with the dead birds, a Fish and Wildlife agent wrote that \u201cwe are no longer involved\u2019\u2019 when birds are killed in oil spills. Agents had a similar reaction when a tugboat spilled oil into Great Harbor in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, killing dozens of birds. \u201cAs this spill involves the incidental take of birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, there is currently no enforcement action planned,\u201d according to an\u00a0email\u00a0from a Fish and Wildlife agent. An\u00a0email\u00a0about a timber harvest in Michigan said Fish and Wildlife no longer prohibits loggers from cutting down trees with nests in them, even if it destroys live eggs or chicks. (In this case, however, Michigan\u2019s state agency stepped in, and saved the great blue heron nests and chicks.) Another\u00a0email\u00a0from October 2018 shows that Fish and Wildlife saved $2.5 million by not filling 10 positions\u00a0primarily related to investigating violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The agency refused to discuss the specific examples or staffing decisions. The Interior Department resisted the documents\u2019 release. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental group that provided the heavily redacted emails to Reveal, had to sue to get them after the Interior Department failed to respond to a public records request. The council is one of several environmental groups and eights states suing to restore full bird protections. *** There\u2019s a lot at stake for birds, people and law enforcement in this fight. Millions\u00a0of birds die every year\u00a0due to\u00a0waste pits\u00a0for mines and oil fields, electric power lines, wind turbines, communications towers and commercial fishing. The threat of prosecutions and fines was a powerful tool to encourage industries to figure out ways to avoid killing birds. Oil companies put nets over waste pits. Electric companies separated wires so eagles and other raptors wouldn\u2019t get electrocuted. Fishing crews put weights on the long lines so birds wouldn\u2019t get drowned when they dove for the bait. Many birds were saved. Scientists caution that weakening the Migratory Bird Treaty Act imperils many types of birds that are endangered or declining in numbers, and it also eliminates an important source of wetlands restoration funding: penalties paid by violators. \u201cIt will unravel a lot of progress over the past several decades,\u201d said Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta who has studied the impact on birds of the oil sands industry in Canada. Restored wetlands help bolster fish and shellfish, clean water and protect people from big storms. \u201cThose conservation efforts are benefiting birds, sure. But they\u2019re also benefiting many other species that are using coastal habitats, and they\u2019re also benefiting people,\u201d said\u00a0Amanda Rodewald, an ornithologist and professor at Cornell University. Doing away with the fines \u201cactually could be putting other communities at risk from storm surges and other negative environmental impacts,\u201d she added. There\u2019s a lot at stake for energy companies, too, which is why they\u2019ve worked so hard to weaken this act. Energy companies fought this policy in court and\u00a0lobbied\u00a0Congress and the Interior Department to abandon it. Bernhardt, a former industry lawyer, played an\u00a0important role\u00a0in\u00a0directing\u00a0the new interpretation, as previously reported by Reveal. An\u00a0email\u00a0from the department\u2019s top lawyer, Daniel Jorjani,\u00a0said Bernhardt\u2019s office had been involved \u201csince Day 1.\u201d At least one of Bernhardt\u2019s former clients, the Independent Petroleum Association of America,\u00a0pushed\u00a0for the change. But Bernhardt did not consider it a conflict of interest to work on the issue. \u201cHe\u2019s not at all recused from dealing with MBTA because that\u2019s a broad matter,\u201d Faith Vander Voort, the department\u2019s press secretary, said after discussing Reveal\u2019s questions with Bernhardt. Some congressional Democrats who opposed Bernhardt\u2019s nomination cited his cozy relationship with industries whose profits are affected by decisions at the Interior Department.\u00a0\u201cThis clearly was an issue that his clients had been working to change. And apparently he did their bidding,\u201d said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. *** In the past, companies have paid enormous fines under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. For instance, in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion\u00a0killed 11 people and triggered an 87-day oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists estimate\u00a0hundreds of thousands\u00a0of birds were killed. BP agreed to pay $100 million for criminal violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In a\u00a0Senate hearing last May, Van Hollen questioned whether the policy change would affect\u00a0efforts to hold oil companies responsible for spills. Former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke insisted it would not: \u201cThat is not what we\u2019re talking about.\u201d That seemed to contradict\u00a0instructions\u00a0issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service. In the past, the memo said, the Interior Department pursued \u201cclaims against companies responsible for oil spills that incidentally killed or injured migratory birds. That avenue is no longer available\u201d due to the 2017 legal interpretation, known as an M-Opinion. Van Hollen\u00a0sought\u00a0clarification, and a Fish and Wildlife official finally responded to him in a Feb. 21\u00a0letter. \u201cIn practice, the new M-Opinion\u00a0means that if an oil or hazardous chemical release occurs and is not done with the intent of taking migratory birds, the MBTA does not apply,\u201d according to the letter from\u00a0Margaret Everson, the agency\u2019s principal deputy director. \u201c(Zinke) didn\u2019t realize this change meant taxpayers and citizens couldn\u2019t hold companies liable under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for massive killing of migratory birds,\u201d Van Hollen told Reveal. Former agents rue the loss of an important tool to prod industries to protect birds. As a rookie agent for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska 30 years ago, Gary Mowad traveled across Prince William Sound for weeks on end, plucking dead birds from \u201cbig globs of oil\u201d spilled from the Exxon Valdez tanker. The Fish and Wildlife Service used that oily evidence from Mowad and other agents to estimate that 300,000 birds were killed in that 1989 spill. Exxon agreed to pay $125 million in fines and restitution for criminal charges, including criminal violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Mowad compares the Trump administration\u2019s reinterpretation as removing all the speed limits and troopers on highways: \u201cFor birds, their highways became a lot more unsafe because there\u2019s no deterrent for bad actors.\u201d Elizabeth Shogren can be reached at\firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter:\u00a0@ShogrenE.