MINNEAPOLIS – A large number of eagles really are active around the footprint of a controversial wind farm under development in Goodhue County, according to a wildlife survey the developer conducted this fall under orders from state regulators.
But the count has been inflated by local opponents who are purposely attracting birds by dumping animal carcasses on the site as part of an organized eagle-baiting campaign, the project developer says.
The charges have not been verified by state investigators. But they represent yet another escalation in a fight occurring at other sites around the country as the wind industry evolves.
The 50-turbine wind farm, approved last year by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, will be located on 12,000 acres that are home to bald and golden eagles, as well as other protected birds and bats.
Goodhue County is south of the Twin Cities and borders the Mississippi River.
Officials from Goodhue Wind have made changes in the project’s design in response to concerns from state and federal wildlife officials.
But there is a growing realization nationally that the clean energy from wind is having an effect on wildlife.
The Goodhue County board, other local governments and some residents have fought the project for more than two years over concerns about setbacks, noise and flicker from the massive blades.
The fight over birds and bats emerged last spring year when residents began documenting eagle nests, then dozens of migrating eagles who hung around the area this fall. Bald and golden eagles are protected by federal law.
To date there are only five known instances in North America of bald eagles killed by wind turbines, said Rich Davis, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has been monitoring the project for two years. But the Goodhue project is the first to be constructed in an area widely used by bald and golden eagles for nesting and migrating, he said.
“I’m confident that there are birds using the area whether there is baiting or not,” he said. “I would definitely say that there is risk at that site.”
Davis said he’s just as concerned with the number of bats that the survey turned up, including rare northern long-eared bats and little brown bats.
The project, in short, is likely to be a large experiment in how and if both species can accommodate turbines, he said.
The PUC ordered Goodhue Wind to conduct a wildlife survey and develop a protection plan, which was filed in December. The document says collisions with eagles will be rare, but projections are uncertain because the surveys “have been seriously compromised by an active baiting program being conducted by project opponents.”
Opponents of the project said there is no baiting going on, and that the company is making the allegations to obscure the true number of eagles in the area.