Could the days of free bird bands be coming to an end?
The Ornithological Council (OC) has for many years tracked a variety of issues and trends relating to the USGS Bird Banding Lab (BBL). Working with the North American Banding Council and other organizations, the OC has worked diligently to assure that ornithologists can obtain the permits and bands that are central to much ornithological research. Perhaps most notably, the OC served on the Federal Advisory Committee for the BBL. This committee was convened by the USGS leadership to determine how the community served by the BBL envisioned the future for the BBL. The 2007 report of the committee identified six major goals along with 58 specific management recommendations consisted with those goals.
In September 2013, the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which houses the BBL, issued a report entitled “The U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory: An Integrated Scientific Program Supporting Research and Conservation of North American Birds.” The report details the response by the BBL to 47 of the recommendations made by the Federal Advisory Committee. The BBL has only partially addressed the remaining 11 recommendations, “for practical reasons or because the requested information or activity is being provided by other organizations. Also, flat funding for the BBL in recent years has prevented initiation of some recommended projects, such as an online permit application system.
Flat funding has also led to a situation of great concern for ornithologists. Several ornithologists have contacted the OC and/or the NABC to report that their applications for banding permits had been denied. As early as January 2012, the OC received reports that the BBL had stated that it was going to have to make some hard decisions about funding, including restrictions on permit issuance. Several ornithologists were told by the BBL that it is committed to continuing support for currently approved projects, but is refusing permits to some new projects, particularly multi-species projects that might entail high-volume banding, because doing so would strain or perhaps exceed the resources of the BBL.
Some time later, an ornithologist was told by the BBL that “if things don’t improve soon, bands are likely to be next on the chopping block.”
After confirming this information with the BBL, the OC and NABC sought a meeting with the USGS Associate Director for Ecosystems. As a result of this meeting and subsequent communications, and concerned by the impact that permit and band restrictions would have on ornithological research, the OC devised a strategy to assure that resource limitations at the BBL would not hinder ornithological research. That strategy recommends that banders pay for permits and/or bands and identifies other potential sources of funding and cost savings in some BBL operations. Before proposing these options to the USGS, the OC reached out to its member societies and a number of ornithologists and banding stations, as well as the NABC, requesting comment on the proposed strategy. Most stated that payments for permits and/or bands was preferable to not bing able to get permits or bands. None objected to the proposed strategy. With that feedback, the OC asked the USGS to consider implementing these options along with other suggestions for increasing revenue and reducing expenses. We are awaiting a response.
Meanwhile, some notes of interest for those who are discomfited by the idea of paying for permits:
- Federal law actually requires that “A user charge, as described below, will be assessed against each identifiable recipient for special benefits derived from Federal activities beyond those received by the general public.” This law has been in effect since 1952 but has not always been enforced. An agency must obtain permission to make an exemption. Even if the BBL requests this exemption, in this fiscal climate it is highly unlikely that an exemption would be granted.
- Publicly available documents from the BBL reveal that the cost of issuing the three-year permit is $90. Therefore, if a permit fee is imposed, it is likely to be approximately $90 ($30/yr), which is about the cost of other Migratory Bird Treaty Act permits (e.g., for scientific collecting, falconry, raptor propagation, depredation control). Presumably, renewals and amendments would carry lower fees because, as the BBL documents suggest, far less staff time is needed to process these permits. It is unclear what fee, if any, would be assessed for subpermits.
- Bands are generally inexpensive, especially when ordered in bulk as shown on the attached table. Presumably, the BBL buys in bulk to achieve the lowest cost.
- The elimination of actual or perceived band shortages should eliminate the practice of over-ordering that can actually lead to shortages.
- Federal law provides that fees go to general treasury unless the Congress has authorized the direction of fees to a particular agency or function (as is the case with the USFWS permit fees). Some additional work will be needed to assure that these fees are directed back to the BBL; some have called for the Department of the Interior to return the BBL to the USFWS in which case this additional effort will not be needed.
The financial constraints that are the stated reason for recent permit denials are only one cause for concern. In allocating scare resources, the BBL has apparently had to make value judgments to decide which projects to permit and which to deny. Though the experience and wisdom of the BBL is impressive, it is worrisome that the BBL would evaluate the merits of individual banding projects. The Advisory Committee recommended that the BBL “base the decision on whether or not to issue master or subpermits on evidence that the applicant has the skills and knowledge to capture and handle birds of the requested species safely, to collect appropriate data (including age and sex) for those species, and to submit data timely and accurately to the BBL.” There are no criteria for the evaluation of the merits of proposed projects for which banding permits are required and the BBL should not be substituting its judgment – even on the basis of objective, transparent criteria – for that of the ornithologist, the funders, and the scientific institutions that oversee the research. Therefore, the practice of choosing among projects on the basis of perceived relative merit should cease once the resource limitations that led to this practice have been alleviated.
If you have questions or concerns, please feel free to contact the Ornithological Council or share your thoughts in the comments section.
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