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An osprey pair rebuilt a nest on a utility pole in Mount Pleasant in March, after an SCE&G crew tore it down. File/Wade Spees/Staff

South Carolina Electric & Gas won't be charged after one of its crews tore down an active osprey nest in Mount Pleasant last month.

It's no longer illegal, apparently — despite the century-old federal Migratory Bird Act that's designed to protect all sorts of regional birds of prey.

Late last year, the Trump administration announced that oil, gas, wind and solar companies won't be prosecuted for activities that inadvertently kill or disrupt birds during the companies' operations.

The change in enforcement announcement by the U.S. Department of the Interior was low key and generally thought to be directed toward wind turbines.

But the interpretation was left wide open, wildlife advocates say, and left federal enforcement officers scrambling.

"We've been working across the service to develop consistent guidance to implement (the decision)," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Jeff Fleming said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service in Georgia cited the Interior Department decision for not prosecuting a March incident in the Peach State when a nest with three eggs was removed by an electrical contractor, according to a report in the Savannah Morning News.

When asked about the Mount Pleasant incident, the Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman in Charleston said the office wouldn't go forward with its investigation.

"We continue to work with SCE&G to ensure they adhere to all applicable laws in their maintenance activities and are additionally helping them with proactive efforts to assist osprey and other birds," spokeswoman Jennifer Koches said.

The Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw is now incubating the Georgia nest eggs.

Jim Elliott, director of the Birds of Prey center, said he is at a loss as to how weak enforcement may become in the current federal climate.

"After years of working with this, I'm very concerned about the direction the enforcement is headed," he said. "It was hard enough to get the regulations followed when it was clearly illegal. But this makes it impossible."

The center has approached federal agencies asking for clarification about how the law will be enforced from now on, but Elliott had not heard back as of Thursday.

An SCE&G crew took down a nest while working on lines in the Rivertowne on the Wando subdivision in early March. The birds circled overhead squawking, and residents frantically yelled at workers to stop. It was the second time in three years along the same stretch of the Wando River that an active nest was removed by SCE&G.

Contacted by residents, the center and the media, Fish and Wildlife agents investigated. At the time, the service would not comment on what they called an active investigation or even say generally what is or isn't allowed in a case like this.

Ospreys are huge eagle-like white birds with black markings on their wings. They are not an endangered species but are protected under the Migratory Species Act. They are determined to build their nest where they choose.

Under the act, utilities could remove nests to protect their lines so long as the nests were not being actively used, according to wildlife officials. Disturbing an active nest was considered a misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to $15,000.

The Rivertowne birds eventually rebuilt their nest.

In the 2015 incident, a replacement nest platform was built for the disrupted birds, but they didn't use it. 

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Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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