March 2, 2013

New law could weaken eagle protection

By Nikki Buskey, Staff Writer | March 1, 2013 |

Environmental groups are protesting a new rule change they say will weaken federal protections for bald eagles by allowing companies to apply for 30-year permits to kill the iconic birds.

The rule change, which has passed the public comment phase, is awaiting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department approval.

Under federal law, companies are allowed to apply for eagle take permits that last up to five years. ‘Take’ is a federal conservation term that includes not just the unintentional killing of birds, but also wounding, trapping, capturing, hunting, harassing or disturbing nests as a part of business operations if they commit to compensating actions to offset the loss. Bald and golden eagles are protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, even though bald eagles have been taken off the endangered-species list.

“The public places a high value on both bald and golden eagles, two species that have inspired awe, pride and patriotism in America’s citizens for generations,” said Darin Schroeder, the American Bird Conservancy’s vice president of conservation advocacy. “The bald eagle is America’s national symbol and was only removed from the endangered-species list in 2007. Thus, this important and highly controversial decision should not be made without the full participation and careful consideration of the new secretary of the interior.”

Terrebonne has been a stronghold for the eagles. The birds were once common in Louisiana, but in the 1970s the chemical toxin DDT almost wiped them out. The chemical makes eggshells brittle and causes mother birds to crush developing chicks in the nest. The birds were placed on the endangered-species list, and as few as six nesting pairs remained in the state. But of those remaining birds, half were centered around the Gibson area.

The eagle population has since risen to 284 nesting pairs in Louisiana and 9,789 pairs nationally, according to the last eagle survey conducted in 2008. Sixty-nine of the state’s pairs were in Terrebonne.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said the rule change was brought to their attention by companies in the renewable energy and wind energy industries. Industry officials said the permits had too-short a time span, which made it difficult to develop long-term renewable-energy projects, which have to demonstrate they can operate continuously over time to attract development.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not want to hamper the development of renewal-energy programs, which themselves can have positive environmental impacts.

Environmental officials are concerned that 30 years is too long a lifetime for an eagle take permit. Bald eagles haven’t been off the endangered species list for a long time, said Kelly Fuller, wind campaign coordinator with the American Bird Conservancy. The organization wrote to the Department of Interior this month to express its concerns about the rule change.

It’s difficult to predict what can happen to a wildlife population in 30 years, and Fuller said wildlife officials are worried a permit will be difficult to change or revoke if issues are discovered.

The five-year renewal allows the federal government to not renew the permit if there is good reason. The public is also allowed to take part in the renewal process during public-comment periods. Thirty-year permits would take that public oversight away, Fuller said.

“The American Bird Conservancy doesn’t oppose these permits if they’re done right,” Fuller said.

Not all the permits will be issued for 30 years under the rule change, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department officials said. Thirty years is the maximum allowed, and permits will be decided on a case-by-case basis. In addition, eagle populations will be monitored under the permits.

If people are concerned about the issue, Fuller urged them to contact the secretary of the interior, who will have the final say on the rule change. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has announced he will not serve another term, so Fuller and representatives of other environmental groups have urged him to leave the issue up to the new secretary to decide.

“It’s only fair, because the next administration will have to implement the decision,” Fuller said. “We want someone who can really look at this and the effect it will have on the eagle population.”

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