Court Orders Cell Tower Safeguards for Birds

A federal court issued a ruling on Feb. 19 ordering the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to institute safeguards aimed at protecting the millions of birds killed each year in collisions with telephone, radio, cellular and other communications towers.

A panel of federal judges ruled that the FCC must require those seeking tower construction licenses to comply with applicable federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that between 5 million and 50 million birds are killed each year in collisions and other accidents caused by communications towers. In its decision, the court criticized the FCC for refusing to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service when approving towers. The court also said the FCC failed to sufficiently involve the public in its tower approval process.

"The Catch-22 … is that the Commission provides public notice of individual tower applications only after approving them," the court wrote in its decision.

Along the Gulf Coast, thousands of communications towers dot the 1,000-mile stretch of coastline between Pt. Isabel, Texas and Tampa Bay, Fla. Towers along this major migratory bird route threaten many different bird species. Exhausted from their journey across the Gulf of Mexico, these migrating songbirds collide with towers or the accompanying guy wires. In some cases, the birds confuse the blinking lights atop the cell towers with the night stars they use to navigate their journey.The birds become disoriented and begin circling the tower until they collapse from exhaustion and plummet to the ground.

The public interest law firm Earthjustice brought the case to federal court on behalf of the American Bird Conservancy. Earthjustice attorneys argued that FCC violated federal law by approving dozens of new towers each year with little or no environmental review.

A copy of the decision can be found at

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