A wind farm being developed in Osage County has applied for federal bald eagle “take” permits for the deaths of up to three of the protected birds each year for at least five years.
Opponents of the permit, including conservationists and tribes in the area, say they aren’t against “green” energy investments. However, they are firmly against the placement of the planned 94-turbine wind farm, which is surrounded within five miles by several active bald eagle nests.
Wind Capital Group, a St. Louis-based energy organization, battled the Osage Nation – which has local interests in oil and gas – until late 2011 over the right to build the wind farm on land the tribe said was former hunting grounds and would be damaged by the project.
Tom Green, senior manager of project development for Wind Capital Group’s Osage Wind farm, said he’s eager to get the project built and confident that turbine construction will begin soon and finish next year.
“When I started in this business, I never imagined that people would think that wind was the environmental problem,” Green said.
Steve Sherrod, executive director of the Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville, said wind farms can lead to a multitude of environmental problems for eagles and ground animals.
Animals can mistake the moving shadows of wind turbines for predators, said Sherrod, whose organization helped rehabilitate the bald eagle population by raising eagles from hatchlings and releasing them into the wild.
Eagles may travel up to 50 miles between feeding area and nest, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, and Sherrod said he’s opposed to the wind farm’s being so close to the eagles’ hunting grounds.
“If you look at one site, it’s not that big of a deal, but you look at all the sites … collectively, you’re looking at a huge impact,” he said.
According to the Department of Wildlife Conservation, 800 to 2,000 eagles inhabit Oklahoma each year, with peak numbers in January and February.
Sherrod said wind farms across the nation are being built in previously untouched areas and upset the ecosystem not just for eagles but for all wildlife.
The permit for Osage Wind – filed late last year – has not been approved, but Green said the government agency has been positive about its outcome and that the construction of turbines is still planned to start as soon as this summer.
Green said the company is working to protect eagles alongside the project as much as possible and that in the permit process it included plans to help the eagle population.
“The eagle permit is something that has been developed over the last several years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, environmental groups and outside agencies,” he said.
The killing of bald eagles – even incidentally as part of some other action – violates federal law. The acquisition of permits to kill them is voluntary and is taken as a precaution to avoid steep fines of up to $500,000 per offense under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Scott BigHorse, assistant principal chief of the Osage Nation, said that during the ongoing battle between the tribe and Wind Capital, it has wanted the business to compromise on the land use and project scope. He said the plans for the property began in 2007 but that little to no interaction took place with the tribe.
“These were our hunting grounds. It was our domain,” BigHorse said. “I don’t know why they didn’t come to the tribe. … We could have sat down at the table, … and we could have strategically placed these wind turbines to where they are not so much in the path.”
BigHorse said the issue is also of high cultural significance to the tribe because of the importance of eagle feathers. The feathers are used in rituals “from when their (Indian children’s) little feet hit the ground to the time of their passing, when we put them in the ground.”
“We use those eagle feathers throughout their lives,” BigHorse said. “We place their personal eagle feather with them to travel with them on that journey to heaven.”
Sherrod emphasized that he is not against the development of new energy sources.
“Hey, I use energy every day,” he said. “I use fuel to heat my home, to cool it, to drive places. I consume food like everybody. (But) we realize that there’s a wise way to do it. … We go full tilt to develop any kind of energy we can.”
Mollie Bivin, Shidler Area Chamber of Commerce president, said she and other families in the small communities near the planned wind farm will benefit from taxes and jobs the wind farm will provide.
“Lots of the residents here in the area are very unhappy that it hasn’t transpired already,” she said, adding that the area is starved for development.
“I’ve been promised that I will see a turbine before I leave this universe,” Bivin said.
Bald eagle protection
Several federal laws protect the national symbol from harm, despite the fact that the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007.
Federal law protects both the bald and golden eagle by prohibiting “the take, possession, sale, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, of any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, including any part, nest, or egg, unless allowed by permit.”
The law defines “take” as to “pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb.”
Civil penalties for violating provisions of the act include a maximum fine of $5,000 or one year imprisonment, with a $10,000 fine or up to two years in prison for a second offense.
Felony convictions for individuals carry a maximum fine of $250,000 or two years of imprisonment. The fine doubles for an organization.
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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