ExxonMobil pled guilty to five violations of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act stemming from the deaths of 85 protected birds at natural gas facilities in five states, including Texas and Colorado, the Justice Department said today.

Hawks, owls, and other birds were apparently looking for a place to rest when they made an unfortunate stop in the company's oily open pits, where they became coated with or swallowed fatal amounts of contaminants.

With development of oil and gas resources encouraged by the Bush Administration, many new waste ponds have appeared on public lands. Some companies use electronic hazing devices that make noises and flashing lights to scare birds away.  Others clean the water before discharging it or cover ponds to keep birds from landing there. Whatever ExxonMobil was doing, it apparently wasn't enough, even though a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the company has "a long-standing water-bird protection program."

"We are all responsible for protecting our wildlife, even the largest of corporations," Colorado U.S. Attorney David M. Gaouette said in a prepared statement. "An important part of this case is the implementation of an environmental compliance plan that will help prevent future migratory bird deaths."

ExxonMobil will pay $400,000 in fines that go to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund and $200,000 in community service payments to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and a non-profit bird rehabilitation foundation.

"We were gratified to see the Justice Department taking violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act seriously and prosecuting a major corporation," Betsy Loyless, senior vice president for policy for the Audubon Society in Washington, D.C., told Scientific American. "It probably took a new Administration looking for a balance of wildlife and energy development to prompt this kind of action."

Photo of Exxon sign courtesy brownpau via Flickr