The bald eagle warrants protection not only as one of nature’s most majestic creatures, but as the U.S. national symbol. A proposed change to regulations that govern the killing of bald eagles, simply to accommodate wind-power generators, could reverse progress in the recovery of this once-endangered species. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service should leave in place existing permit procedures, which are generous enough as is.
Under federal regulations adopted in 2009, two years after the bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list, businesses and other entities can apply for a five-year permit that allows killing of bald eagles “that is incidental to an otherwise lawful activity, such as mortalities caused by collisions with rotating wind turbines.” The wildlife service in April proposed pushing the permits’ expiration date to 30 years. The service maintains that the five-year term “needed to be extended to better correspond to the timeframe of renewable energy projects.”
The nonchalant attitude on display is at odds with the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which makes it a federal crime to kill, sell or possess an eagle. When the wildlife service enacted the 2009 permit regime, according to the New York Times, officials “said the new permits would still provide stringent protections for the birds but keep the growing population of bald eagles from curtailing other vital human activities.”
A 30-year permit departs from the concept of “stringent protections.” And the proposal wouldn’t do much for the eagles. Regular reviews of a company’s compliance with mitigation and conservation efforts would make more sense.
The wildlife service says that monitoring and reporting by the wind energy operators “will be critically important for assessing impacts to eagles” under the proposed rules, and that the agency will conduct “periodic evaluations” of permitted sites. But the acreage devoted to wind turbines has exploded in the past decade; wildlife service staff has not. Effectively enforcement of these permits is a dubious prospect. And depending on self-reporting from companies whose principal interest is in generating electricity – not wildlife conservation – would hardly protect the eagles.
Loosening up the regulations could also threaten the recovery of the bald eagle, and further stress the declining population of golden eagles. Naturalists estimate that there were 100,000 breeding pairs of eagles when the United States adopted the bird as the national symbol in 1782. By the early 1960s, there were only 400 left. Today, there are about 10,000 pairs. Golden eagles, in contrast, have dropped in number from 100,000 birds several decades ago to about 30,000 now. Neither population is so healthy that survival is assured.
Americans have gone to great lengths and greater expense to help the wind industry survive until it can compete with less expensive sources of power. But the wildlife service’s proposed approach goes beyond any concession to intelligent energy policy. Making the killing of eagles more convenient for the wind industry is neither reasonable nor necessary.
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