PAWHUSKA – The Osage Nation appears to have struck a blow in a fight against a wind farm ready for construction in Osage County.
Arguing that the wind farm could kill eagles that nest nearby – an important bird to the Osage culture as well as American culture – the wind farm construction has been temporarily set back.
Wind Capitol Group, a St. Louis-based energy organization, says construction of the 94 turbines will begin by the end of this year. Wind Capitol Group officials previously said they hoped to begin construction this summer.
“The project continues to work closely with local officials on required authorizations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the voluntary Eagle Take Permit and looks forward to providing clean renewable energy to the American people in the coming year,” according to a statement from Wind Capital Group.
However, the Osage Nation, which has longstanding interests in oil and gas in the area, is now pushing for full archaeological research in the wind farm’s acreage, saying the area is some of the densest in all of Oklahoma for culturally significant tribal sites such as camp sites and burials.
“We’re sitting and waiting on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make a decision on whether they are going to enforce federal law ... and order an archaeology study, which they did but never brought the tribe in for consultation,” Osage Nation Assistant Chief Scott BigHorse said.
“Right now we feel like we’re guinea pigs. We are going to be the first tribe ever that’s going to have a wind farm receive an eagle-kill permit in their back yard.”
The permit would allow for up to three eagles to be killed each year by turbines with no penalty to the wind farm owners. It serves as a precaution for the owners who could be subject to penalties from the government for eagle deaths.
BigHorse said the fight against the wind farm would not involve court action until possibly after the agency issues the permit.
Jerry Thompson, the service’s chief of the Southwest Region Migratory Birds Permits office, is in charge of issuing the bald eagle incidental kill permit requested by Wind Capitol Group.
Thompson said the Osage Wind farm is the bellwether for more than 15 other wind-farm eagle-kill permits in the U.S. that are waiting to be reviewed.
“It’s just the regular process we go through but yes, it’s been slower than what we normally go through,” Thompson said.
Thompson said the other permits, the first of their kind, are running into the same roadblocks.
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.”
Federal numbers on eagles in the eastern Oklahoma region show that up to 4.78 eagles per year may be killed without severely damaging the overall population.
According to the Department of Wildlife Conservation, 800 to 2,000 eagles inhabit Oklahoma each year, with peak numbers in January and February.
While the Osage Nation argues the tribe has not been consulted and the area’s cultural significance has not been thoroughly surveyed, Thompson said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still steadily working through its process.
An environmental impact study that addresses cultural impact will soon be sent to the Osage Nation and several other tribes that may be affected, Thompson said.
Also, the agency plans to meet with representatives from the Osage Nation and Wind Capitol Group on Sept. 12.
“We’re meeting with the wind company and the Osage to work this out,” Thompson said.
In a new concern raised by the Osage, the tribe says several studies show the land is filled with prehistoric archaeological finds. The artifacts and sites date from when the Osage and other tribes hunted into Osage County hundreds of years ago, the tribe says.
One study, conducted as part of the eagle-kill permit process, found 60 sites within the wind farm’s acreage that had pre-contact tribal significance and recommended that four of those may be eligible being added to the National Register of Historical Places.
Both the recent study and a 1988 study found by the Osage Nation show that the area and neighboring Kay County have some of the highest density for culturally significant archaeological sites in Oklahoma.
“We had buffalo trails that came right straight down into this area,” BigHorse said. “Twice a year they would come from the St. Louis area into the plains.”
Wind energy advocates argue the turbines have a low profile for ground disturbance but BigHorse said gravel roads will be built to connect the turbines for construction and service.
The survey that found more than 60 archaeological sites also found 77 above-ground sites that were mostly associated with oil and gas left from former drilling sites, according to the survey.
BigHorse maintains the tribe is not opposed to wind energy, adding that with the Osage Nation is in the beginning phases of “going green” at its Pawhuska tribal complex, an upgrade that includes turbines.
“If we were, then why are we going to put them (turbines) on our agency campus?” BigHorse said.