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Wind farm will seek permit to legally kill eagles

A controversial wind farm proposed near Red Wing plans to ask for federal permission to legally kill eagles, making it one of the first in the nation to participate in a new federal strategy aimed at managing the often-lethal conflict between birds and turbine blades.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say they urged the developers of AWA Goodhue Wind to seek the new permit because the deaths of an unknown number of eagles and endangered golden eagles will be inevitable once the 50-turbine project is up and running.

The process for such “incidental take” permits was devised in 2009 as a compromise between the demand for clean energy from the growing number of wind farms and the rising concern over the estimated hundreds of thousands of birds and bats that they kill every year.

The 18.75-square-mile site in Goodhue County is home to a number of nesting eagles, and many more migrate through the area every year. There also have been sightings of two rare and endangered golden eagles, which come down from Canada to winter along the Mississippi River bluffs in southeastern Minnesota.

To get a permit, the company must provide a detailed plan designed to minimize the impact on protected species, project how many are likely to be killed each year, and keep track of the outcome.

The plan would have to be approved by the federal wildlife agency, giving it some future influence over the design and operation of the project, which is now under the jurisdiction of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

“There are a lot of issues,” said Mags Rheude, a wildlife biologist with the Minnesota office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’d have to come to an agreement.”

The developer, AWA Goodhue Wind, stated its intent to file for the federal permit in filings with the PUC, but did not respond to requests for comment.

Without the permit, the company could be subject to federal prosecution if the project results in the destruction of the birds or their nests.

In recent years, there have been four documented deaths and one injury to bald eagles from North American wind farms, and many more among golden eagles at one wind farm built along their migration path in California, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

So far, only one wind project, the West Butte Power Project in Oregon, has submitted a request for such a permit, but more are expected.

“There are a fair amount of wind farms lined up – hesitantly,” Rheude said. “I think there are a lot of people watching to see how the process will go.”

Regulators have doubts

In the meantime, however, federal and state wildlife officials say they have significant concerns about AWA Goodhue Wind’s wildlife protection plan, which will go before the PUC on Feb. 2. The commission’s decision is key in determining when and if construction starts on the locally contentious project, which has been in the works for more than two years.

For example, in its filings with the PUC, the company says it has been unable to accurately count eagles or predict how many might be harmed, because local opponents are engaged in an artificial feeding campaign to attract birds to the area.

But, in their sharpest critique, both the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Fish and Wildlife Service said in their filings that no such campaign has been verified by state investigators. The project, they noted, is located in an agricultural area, where livestock and wild animal carcasses are common.

“Due to the large number of eagles already present in the area, it is likely eagles will discover carcasses quickly,” federal officials said. “Eagles feeding on carcasses will likely be a long-term issue for AWA Wind.”

Both the state and federal agencies also expressed concern about the company’s plan to remove woods and other habitat to keep birds and other wildlife away from the turbines. That would only serve to harm other species, they said.

They also raised questions about the company’s plans to measure the project’s impact on bats, which are becoming as great a concern among conservationists as birds. New research is finding that some species of bats are particularly susceptible to wind turbines, because even if they manage to avoid the turbines, the pressure changes that occur as the blades move through air can cause fatal internal bleeding.

“In the next few years there may be more endangered species on the site,” Rheude said.