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Rochester to host International Bald Eagle Days

Stirred to action by controversy over local wind turbine projects, organizers have revived International Bald Eagle Days, which will be held in Rochester this fall after a 15-year hiatus.

The event was created in 1967 by Terrence Ingram of the Eagle Nature Foundation in Illinois as a way to raise awareness of the nation’s iconic symbol of freedom. The event been hosted throughout the country since then – including Minneapolis in 1981 – but was essentially mothballed in 1997 when bald eagles were deemed to be on the road to recovery. The bird was officially removed from the Endangered Species list in 2007.

However, Ingram and others claim that the booming wind energy industry has had the unintended consequence of destroying critical bald eagle habitat around the country while also endangering the birds themselves. Southeastern Minnesota figures prominently in this discussion.

The 78-megawatt AWA Goodhue project near Zumbrota has faced an unprecedented three-year permitting process and drawn national attention over the existence of bald eagles in the project footprint. The 200-plus megawatt EcoHarmony project near the Mystery Caves in Fillmore County is facing a similar issue with bald eagles. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has recommended that both projects apply for an Incidental Take Permit, which would allow them to kill a limited number of the birds. No permits have ever been approved by the federal agency.

“We’re going up there because of the interest in the wind farms,” Ingram said in a phone interview. “People keep telling us we don’t have any eagles out there in the footprints, and we’re going to bring attention to it. We’re going to show everybody they’re out there.

“That’s one of the topics that we will be covering, but it’s not going to be the main topic,” he said. “The main topic is going to be that our eagles are having problems and we’re trying to figure out why.”

Bald Eagle Days has typically drawn a couple hundred people, but Ingram says it’s unclear what effect the long hiatus and heightened local interest will have on those numbers.

Minnesota produces the fifth-most wind energy in the country, but it’s also in the top three for nesting bald eagles in the lower 48 states.

While an agenda and speakers are still being finalized – state and federal agencies have been invited, along with representatives from the wind industry. Ingram says he’ll also try to engage local students through essay and art contests, the best of which will be honored during a formal banquet on Oct. 27.