Federal Court Orders Cell Tower Safeguards for Gulf Coast Birds


Decision could save millions of birds killed each year in tower collisions


Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 235
Steve Holmer, American Bird Conservancy, (202) 234-7181

A federal court of appeals today issued a ruling ordering the Federal Communications Commission to carefully evaluate the potential adverse effects of communications towers on migratory bird populations of the Gulf Coast region.

A panel of federal judges ruled that national environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act require the FCC to more carefully consider these possible adverse effects in its tower permitting process.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates between five million and fifty 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 such 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.

Tens of thousands of communication towers dot landscapes across the country. In Texas alone, there are over 10,000 of these towers. Each month, the FCC receives more than 20 new applications for tower construction.

The situation is critical along the Gulf Coast where thousands of communications towers dot the 1,000-mile stretch of coastline between Pt. Isabel, Texas and Tampa Bay, Florida. 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.

“We are very pleased by today’s ruling which will require the FCC to assess the environmental impacts of towers,” said Darin Schroeder, American Bird Conservancy’s Executive Director of Conservation Advocacy. “Given the large number of bird deaths caused by towers, an environmental review is long overdue. The ruling will also require FCC to better protect endangered species by consulting with wildlife experts before permitting decisions are made. This is a huge victory for migratory birds and the millions of Americans who love to see them each year.”

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.

“The court has clearly directed the FCC to respect national environmental laws when handing out permits for these tower,” said Earthjustice attorney Steve Roady. “FCC now must go back and carefully evaluate the environmental impacts of these towers.”

Read the decision (PDF)

Watch a video by the American Bird Network about this victory:

Additional Resources

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