Wind farms have killed at least 85 eagles in nearly a dozen states over the past 15 years, according to a new study by Fish and Wildlife Service scientists.
But that tally underestimates, “perhaps substantially,” the total number of eagles that have been struck by wind turbines, due to a lack of rigorous monitoring and reporting of eagle deaths, the study said.
The study also did not include eagle deaths from the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in California, where previous studies have estimated that as many as 75 eagles have been killed annually, the study notes.
All unpermitted eagle deaths from wind farms violate federal law.
The study, published this month in the Journal of Raptor Research, adds potent fodder to the debate over how to balance carbon-free wind energy with protections for birds, bats and their habitats.
Wildlife advocates have criticized the Obama administration for failing to prosecute wind farms that kill eagles, which are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
But the wind industry argues it has taken significant steps to avoid and mitigate harm to eagles and that mortality from turbines is “far lower” than from other leading causes including lead poisoning, electrocutions from power lines, vehicle collisions, drowning in stock tanks and illegal shootings.
The study also comes as the Obama administration nears the finalization of a controversial rule to extend the life of “take” permits for wind farms to disturb or kill eagles from five years to 30 years, a proposal requested by the wind industry but strongly opposed by the environmental community.
Although the study was conducted by six FWS scientists, its findings were neither endorsed nor rejected by the agency.
The authors warned that the actual number of eagle deaths is possibly much higher, because the majority of deaths were incidentally reported during routine activities at facilities. Data were gleaned from public-domain sources and documents wind energy companies voluntarily provided to the agency.
“Our findings of the reported mortalities likely underestimate, perhaps substantially, the number of eagles killed at wind facilities in the United States,” the study said. “Given the projected growth in wind resource development in habitat frequented by bald eagles and golden eagles, estimation of total mortality and better understanding of factors associated with injury and death at wind facilities through robust and peer-reviewed research and monitoring should be a high priority.”
While nearly 80 percent of the eagles were killed within the last four years, the study authors did not say whether that indicated a rising rate of eagle deaths
Overall, the 85 eagles were killed at 32 wind energy facilities in 10 states.
States with the highest fatalities included California, where 13 facilities killed 27 golden eagles, and Wyoming, where seven facilities killed 29 golden eagles. Six of the fatalities were bald eagles, which were killed in Iowa, Maryland and Wyoming.
Wildlife advocates warned that total mortality is likely much higher, particularly because a small fraction of the reported deaths came from surveys that actually looked for eagles.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Kelly Fuller of the group Protect Our Communities Foundation, which advocates for rural communities and wildlife in Southern California. “We really don’t have a clue.”
The study notes that there was about 52,000 megawatts of wind energy installed in the lower 48 states by last fall but that development “likely will increase substantially by 2015 … suggesting potential for increased interaction between eagles and wind energy facilities.”
John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association, said wind developers are actively engaged with regulators and conservationists to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts to eagles.
“No one takes wildlife impacts more seriously than the wind industry,” Anderson said in an email today. “While some eagles occasionally collide with turbines at some wind farms, this is not a common occurrence, with fatalities of golden eagles at modern wind facilities only representing 2 percent of all documented sources of human caused fatalities and only a few bald eagles in the history of the industry.”
Anderson said the only reason so much is known about eagle deaths from wind farms is because the industry conducts pre- and post-construction surveys and self-reports losses.
The 85 documented eagle deaths are a small percentage of the estimated 30,000 golden eagles across the United States, according to a 2011 FWS estimate.
But that hasn’t stopped wildlife advocates from insisting the Obama administration enforce bird protection laws the same way it does in other energy sectors including oil and gas.
Although no projects have been prosecuted, the administration is not turning a blind eye.
Last March, FWS said it was investigating the death of a golden eagle at a Nevada wind farm, whose owner Pattern Energy could be subject to a $200,000 fine under the eagle protection law (Greenwire, March 26).
That same month, FWS said it was investigating the death of a golden eagle at the North Sky River wind farm in Kern County, Calif. “Un-permitted take of eagles is the illegal take of eagles,” Jill Birchell, special agent in charge of the agency’s Office of Law Enforcement for California and Nevada, said at the time.
Since 2009, FWS has allowed developers to obtain five-year eagle “take” permits as long as strict avoidance and mitigation steps have been taken and overall harm to eagles will not reduce the local population. But the administration is proposing to extend that timeline to 30 years.
The proposed rule would also hike industry fees to help defray the cost of developing adaptive mitigation measures and monitoring permit effectiveness – from $1,000 to up to $36,000. In addition, the agency proposed a new administrative fee ranging from $2,600 for five-year permits to $15,600 for 30-year permits.
The White House has hosted at least four meetings since May with conservationists, AWEA officials and American Indian groups to discuss the rule (Greenwire, Sept. 4).
FWS estimates wind turbines kill about 440,000 birds annually, according to a 2009 study.