Bird Man

Michael Oropallo on the only outdoor and wildlife legal team in the country

Published in 2020 Upstate New York Super Lawyers Magazine

When Michael Oropallo was a boy, he hunted, fished, hiked and camped. It was fun, but took a back seat to something else. 

“My first love is birds,” says the co-leader of Barclay Damon’s outdoor and wildlife team, the only of its kind in the nation. “I live on one of the Finger Lakes, and I’m lucky to be able to look out in the fall and winter when the waterfowl are migrating through. I have bird feeders up, and I love the colorations.”

Oropallo took that love for the outdoors to college, getting a degree in geology at SUNY Oswego before heading down to the Gulf Coast to work in oil. In the early ’80s, when the industry bottomed out, he headed up to Ohio Northern for a J.D.

His big break came in the mid-’90s, when he tried Hart v. Dan Chase Taxidermy—a case that melded his passion for nature and his intellectual property litigation practice.

“Dan Chase was a guy down in Louisiana that was copying all of my clients’—the taxidermy artists industries’—forms. Taxidermy forms are sculptures of the anatomy of the animal over which the skin is put to make it look realistic,” says Oropallo. “It basically held that realistic depiction of animals are copyrightable.”

Oropallo’s reputation grew. At tradeshows, he began giving seminars on environmental acts to hunters, taxidermists and outdoorsmen. Today, along with Rick Capozza, he leads an outdoor and wildlife team that regularly handles matters involving fish, wildlife and game violations; as well as hunting advocacy, museum acquisitions and permitting issues. He deals with federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and Lacey Act.

On any given day, Oropallo could be litigating in federal court or jetting around the country to look at museum artifacts. “Or, for example, I could receive a phone call about a wildlife specimen that is seized at the U.S. border, with claims that the paperwork is irregular or incomplete,” he says. 

When a private or public natural history museum is looking to acquire a collection, either the collector or the museum will reach out to Oropallo. “You have to determine whether or not permits are necessary for obtaining those items—and whether some of the items can be purchased, or if the items have to be donated,” he says. “I determine what’s in a collection, whether or not any of the specimens or artifacts are subject to any wildlife or antiquities laws, or Native American prohibitions laws. Then I determine how to conduct the transaction. A lot of times I work directly with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to verify my understanding of these laws, because there are a lot of grey areas.”

Some notable acquisitions include helping a museum acquire a collection of approximately 5,000 bird specimens of the world, and then 3,000 more from a different collector. “It’s one of the largest collections [in the world],” Oropallo says. “And it includes extinct species like the passenger pigeon and a heath hen.”

Oropallo estimates that 85 percent of his work involves the outdoor industry. The IP part of it, he says, involves “doing copyrights and trademarks for various outdoor organizations to doing patents for, for example, the mechanisms on a compound bow.”  

In his spare time, Oropallo bow hunts for white-tailed deer and turkey. He also enjoys putting his taxidermy skills to the test. “I do a lot of waterfowl hunting, and I eat the birds of course, but I don’t like to throw the skins away because the feathers are so beautiful,” he says. He’ll mount them for himself or to give as gifts. 

“To have Rick and I, both being outdoorsmen, environmental lawyers and conservationists, we are unique from that perspective,” Oropallo says. “This is our vocation and our advocation.”

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