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  • MBTA Permits: Practical suggestions for the ornithologist

    Fern Davies
    • Author: Ellen Paul

      If you need an MBTA permit, the time to apply is...NOW! Do you need one? What should you do to make the process go quickly and smoothly?

    Your advisor has signed off on your research proposal. You’ve got your funding. Your IACUC has approved your protocols. What stands between you and your field work is a permit. Is there anything you can do to expedite the issuance of that permit? Yes, in fact, there are a number of things that you can do to make sure you get your Migratory Bird Treaty Act permit in time to get your field work underway.

    • Yes! You do need a scientific collecting permit for every activity that involves capture or handling of a bird protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act other than capture and marking with bands, radio-transmitters, geolocators, patagial tags, neck rings, or other auxiliary markers that are approved by the USGS Bird Banding Lab. If you intend to implant a transmitter (other than subcutaneously), you will need a scientific collecting permit. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and most state agencies use the term "scientific collecting" to encompass all research activities, unlike scientists, for whom that term connotes permanent removal of an animal from the wild. You can collect blood and feather samples under your banding permit IF you are also marking the bird. Otherwise, you must have a scientific collecting permit to collect blood, feathers, or anything else including crop samples, stomach contents, tracheal or cloacal swabs, and so on.
    • Apply early! No later than mid-March for a summer field season, and earlier if possible. The permit offices are short-staffed and facing an ever-increasing workload. Remember, yours is not the only permit application they will handle. Besides all the other ornithologists who are submitting applications, they also have to handle applications for rehabilitation, falconry, raptor propagation, taxidermy, and a number of special purpose permits. In 2002, the USFWS conducted a workload analysis. The regional staff (at that time, Region 8 did not exist) were processing about 12,000 permits per year. In the subsequent 10 years, the level of staffing has not increased but the workload has. Although the permit application states that you should allow 60 – 90 days for processing, it might take more time if the permit examiner has questions or if you have to submit additional information. This is particularly true if you are planning to work in more than one region. You will apply in the region that includes the state where you reside or attend school, but that regional office will consult with the regional offices that cover the other places where you plan to work, and that consultation will take time. And, of course, because workflow varies, your permit application might be one of an unusually large number of applications that arrive over a short period of time. The absence of an examiner, planned or otherwise, can cause a back-up. If your permit is delayed for any reason, you and the permit examiner will both be in the frustrating position of having to rush to get the permit in time. If you apply early, these problems are less likely to result in your not having your permit when you need it. If you are planning to start your work in mid-May, for instance, try to apply by mid-January.
    • Make your requests clear and simple. State exactly what you are seeking permission to do before you go into more detail about the project. Example:
      I plan to conduct a study of the impact of rodenticides on Barn Owl reproduction. To do this, I will:
      1. locate the nest holes of up to 100 Barn Owls and place cameras inside the nest holes;
      2. use the camera to monitor the number of eggs laid and the number hatched;
      3. take blood samples from not more than 150 hatchlings until the last bird fledges or dies;
      4. use the camera to determine the number and frequency of feedings;
      5. periodically check the nest hole to obtain pellets

      I will compare the results from 50 nests in an area known to be free of rodenticides to those of 50 nests in an area where rodenticide use is known and documented.

    • If you have more than one project planned, it will help to include a table that lists the species, number of birds, type of activity, and location. If your permit will cover more than one project, describe the projects in a numbered list and key each line in the table to the project description. Example:

      We seek authority for the following activities:

      Species Number Activity Location Project description
      Common Loon (Gavia immer) up to 250 Collect nonviable eggs and broken shells Maine, Vermont, New York 1
      All passerines unlimited Collect (salvage) birds found dead All states 2
      Barn Owl (Tyto alba), Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), Barred Owl (Strix varia) up to 50 of each Obtain crop samples Pennsylvania 3
      Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana up to 35 per year Collect live birds Arizona 4

      Make sure the numbers in the table match the number of birds in the project description.

    • Remember that for MBTA permits, you are allowed by law to continue the permitted activities if you have applied for renewal at least 30 days prior to the expiration date (and the permit has not been revoked or suspended). You can avoid worrying about receiving your renewed permit if you remember to apply at least 30 days before the current permit expires. So do not worry that if you apply early, your permit will expire before you can complete your work. Just be sure to get your renewal application at least 30 days before the current permit expires and you can continue your work. However, please note that the expired permit does not authorize any new projects that might be included in your renewal application. You must have the renewed permit in hand before you can begin any new projects that were not listed on the expired permit.
    • Do all you can to be sure your permit covers all the activities that your research project will entail. Having to apply for amendments just increases the workload - including your workload, and your expenses - and slows things down for everyone. For instance, do you anticipate bringing birds into captivity to study in the lab? Be sure you state what you plan to do with the birds when the research is completed. If you don’t plan to release them (or your IACUC won’t approve a protocol that entails release) make sure the permit application asks for authority to keep the birds after the research is completed, or give the birds to a zoo, other researcher, or euthanize the birds and give the carcasses to a museum or teaching collection.
    • Don’t forget your state permit(s). If anything, the state wildlife offices are even more short-staffed than are the federal offices. Be sure you check to determine if you need a state permit. The Ornithological Council maintains a website that gives the permit requirements for each state http://www.nmnh.si.edu/BIRDNET/permit/stateindex.html.
    • If you plan to work on federal land (such as National Wildlife Refuges, national parks, Forest Service or BLM property), check these guides: http://www.nmnh.si.edu/BIRDNET/permit/index.html

    Historical perspective on the views of ornithologists to the "A.O.U. Model Law" that was the forerunner of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act:

    "DEAR SIRS:-Under the head of Editorial ‘ Notes’ in the September-October issue of THE CONDOR is a most surprising outburst of criticism and abuse of the A. 0. U. model ‘ law’ and, incidentally, of the A. 0. U. Committee on Bird Protection, so evidently prompted by selfishness and so pervaded with ignorance and misconception of the real facts of the case that a ,word in reply seems desirable. The outcry 1 is against the clause granting permits to properly accredited persons for the collection of birds and their nests and eggs for strictly scientific purposes,
    which was inserted especially to allow “Ornithology to come in.” “Take this feature away, says the writer, 2 “and it is a good law.” He glories in the fact that his own State of California “is still free,” and adds that “it is largely to this fact that its exceptional ornithological activity is due. We need a good bird law here, but we of the Cooper Club are not criminals and do not require to be bonded when we seek the festive song sparrow or chickadee.”

    The fact is overlooked that without this provision the ornithologists who merely collect
    birds, for scientific study, the pot bunter and the commercial bird trapper would all be in the same criminal category of law breakers, subject to arrest and punishment whenever detected."

    J.A. Allen, writing in The Condor, Vol.5, Issue 6 (1903)

    Read the full letter:
    Condor debate on permits 1903-Part2.pdf
    and the response:
    Condor debate on permits 1903-Part3.pdf.

    (The original "editorial note" to which Allen was responding is missing ... a search is on!)

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