Local organization supports golden eagle research amid questions about effective regulation of the wind industry
Highlanders For Responsible Development (HRD) has donated $1,000 to support a West Virginia University research effort to better determine the status and behavior of golden eagles in the central Appalachians, including Highland County and the surrounding area. A major concern for HRD and the WVU research group is the potential for golden eagle mortality and population impacts associated with construction of utility-scale wind turbines on mountain ridges in the region.
The eagle research, lead by Dr. Todd Katzner in WVU’s Division of Forestry and Natural Resources, will estimate the size of the eastern golden eagle population using count data obtained from hawk migration watch sites and information on migratory flight routes. In contrast to western North America, where the population of golden eagles is about 30,000, the population of golden eagles in eastern North America may be as low as 1,000 individuals.
Eastern golden eagles are migratory, nesting in Canada and wintering in the United States. The majority fly along the Appalachian Mountains, and a large proportion of those spend the winter in the higher- elevation forested mountains of Virginia. Highland County is a particular golden eagle concentration area and a popular destination for ornithologists and bird clubs from around the state who seek to observe this relatively rare species and other raptors that move into the area in winter.
As reported in past articles in The Recorder, the status of both golden and bald eagles in Highland County has been matter of significant public and scientific interest over the last decade, due in large part to the Highland New Wind Development (HNWD) proposal to locate 400-foot wind turbines on two of the highest ridgelines in the area.
Attorneys for HNWD submitted testimony to the State Corporation Commission in 2005 claiming that no eagles nest in the county and that winter raptor use at the proposed wind project site is low.
This has proved to be wrong. A number of bald eagle nesting sites were subsequently located along Highland County waterways, and the area surrounding the proposed wind project has been identified as a high-use area for wintering golden eagles.
Efforts to document and understand eagle activity in the area have involved a variety of stakeholders, including the WVU research group, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia’s Center for Conservation Biology, and local citizens. Data have been collected to document eagle observations and bald eagle nesting sites, and a number of golden eagles have been captured and fitted with tracking devices.
Most famously, the travels of one female golden eagle, captured near the HNWD site and given the name Virgil Caine, have been tracked by satellite since 2008. Virgil Caine attained broader celebrity when her passage through proposed wind development areas in Maine was discussed in a local editorial titled, Golden Eagles, Wind Power Don’t Mix.
The impact on eagles and other wildlife has been a subject of national controversy since large wind turbine projects were first constructed. Despite years of legal battle and mitigation efforts, golden eagle mortality at the huge Altamont Pass project in California continues at about 67 eagles per year.
Closer to home, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently estimated that a proposed wind project along the North Carolina coast will result in the death of up to 20 bald eagles per year. According to news reports, the wind development company, Invenergy, which also has plans for western Virginia, has now delayed going forward with the North Carolina project until the risk to eagles can be further studied.
The issue of risk, both to eagles and to wind energy developers, comes down to enforcement of the Eagle Protection Act, which explicitly prohibits the so-called “taking” of eagles. The law, however, has not actually been enforced.
Dr. George Fenwick, President of the American Bird Conservancy, describes how, in 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service introduced a “five-year permit scheme that allows the wind power industry and others to kill eagles during the normal course of business. … Rather than being grateful for a means to operate within the law, wind companies have continuously flouted the eagle protection act and lobbied for a longer permit duration.”
“Independent scientists,” Fenwick says, “are routinely refused access to wind power facilities, and data given to the government are often kept from the public. Some companies even falsely claim that this information is proprietary, as if they owned the public’s wildlife. The birds that are acknowledged publicly as being killed therefore represent just a fraction of the true toll.”
Eric Glitzenstein, an attorney with the law firm engaged by HRD to bring suit if HNWD should go forward in defiance of endangered species protections, has asserted that the government has effectively told the wind industry: “‘No matter what you do, you need not worry about being prosecuted.'”
This could be about to change, but perhaps not for the better.
The wind industry lobby has apparently convinced the Fish and Wildlife Service to weaken rather than implement their regulations. The agency has now proposed to issue “take permits” for 30 years instead of five years and to relax permit requirements.
Dr. Fenwick predicts that with 30-year permits handed out to an industry already failing with respect to both transparency and accountability, we will only see more wind development in inappropriate places and more dead eagles. This is bad news for the small population of eastern golden eagles that must increasingly share their ridgeline flight space with turbine blades.
The research currently underway will provide information needed by regulators if they are to make responsible decisions to avoid or minimize the risk presented to golden eagles by Appalachian wind
energy development. It will all be for naught, though, if the industry lobby prevails in its campaign to ensure that such information never receives real consideration.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on its proposed regulation changes until July 12th. Information on the proposed change and on submitting comments is available at: www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/BaldAndGoldenEagleManagement.htm
Editors note: Rick Webb is a board member of Highlanders for Responsible Development and manager of the Virginia Wind website (vawind.org). Highlanders for Responsible Development is a citizens’ group that promotes stewardship of Highland County’s unspoiled landscape, natural resources and exceptional quality of life. HRD supports policies and activities that are based upon informed community discourse, democratic decision making, prudent land use and sustainable economic development.
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