BILLINGS, Mont. -- The Biden administration said Thursday it was delaying a rule finalized in former President Donald Trump's last days in office that would have drastically weakened the government's power to enforce a century-old law protecting most wild birds.
The rule could mean more birds die, including those that land in oil pits or collide with power lines or other structures, government studies concluded. But under Trump, the Interior Department sided with industry groups that had long sought to end criminal prosecutions of accidental but preventable bird deaths.
While the new rule had been set to go into effect on Sunday, The Associated Press obtained details of the delay ahead of Thursday's announcement. Interior Department officials said they were putting off the rule at President Joe Biden's direction and will reopen the issue to public comment.
The migratory bird rule change was among dozens of Trump-era policies affecting the environment that Biden ordered to be reconsidered on his first day in office. Former federal officials, attorneys for conservation groups and Democrats in Congress have said many of the Trump rules were targeted at benefiting private industry at the expense of conservation.
"The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a bedrock environmental law critical to protecting migratory birds and restoring declining bird populations," Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said. "The Trump administration sought to overturn decades of bipartisan and international precedent in order to protect corporate polluters."
A federal judge in August had blocked a previous attempt by the Trump administration to change how the bird treaty was enforced. But the administration remained adamant that the law had been wielded inappropriately for decades to penalize companies and other entities that kill birds accidentally.
The highest-profile enforcement case brought under the law resulted in a $100 million settlement by energy company BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico killed about 100,000 birds. Hundreds of other enforcement cases -- including against utilities, oil companies and wind energy developers -- resulted in criminal fines and civil penalties totaling $5.8 million between 2010 and 2018. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said relatively few cases end in criminal prosecutions.
More than 1,000 North American species are covered by the law -- from the fast-flying peregrine falcon to numerous tiny songbirds and more than 20 species of owls. Non-native species and some game birds such as turkeys are not on the list.
In 2017, the government stopped enforcing the law against companies and other entities in accidental bird deaths.
The move to lessen enforcement standards drew a sharp backlash from organizations that advocate on behalf of an estimated 46 million U.S. birdwatchers. It came at a time when species across North America already were in steep decline, with some 3 billion fewer birds in the skies compared with 1970, according to researchers.
A Trump administration analysis of the rule change did not put a number on how many more birds could die. But it said some vulnerable species could decline to the point that they would require protection under the Endangered Species Act.
"All indications are the birds need more protections and that the public strongly supports protections and loves birds," said Steve Holmer with the American Bird Conservancy. "There has been great progress in finding solutions to bird mortality, and we're hopeful the administration will create a process to start implementing those solutions."
Industry sources and other human activities -- from oil pits and wind turbines, to vehicle strikes and glass building collisions -- now kill an estimated 460 million to 1.4 billion birds annually, out of an overall 7.2 billion birds in North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and recent studies.
Researchers say cats are the biggest single source of deaths, killing more than 2 billion birds a year.
Many companies have sought to reduce bird deaths in recent decades by working with wildlife officials, but the incentive to participate drops without the threat of criminal liability.
The American Petroleum Institute, which supported the Trump rule, declined to say if it will fight to keep it.
"Our focus remains on working with the Biden administration in support of policies that support environmental protection while providing regulatory certainty," said Amy Emmert, a senior policy adviser with the oil industry group.
The 1918 migratory bird law came about after many U.S. bird populations had been decimated by hunting and poaching -- much of it for feathers for women's hats.