The Department of Interior finalized a new rule extending permits for wind energy facilities to kill bald and golden eagles in a move that could encourage even more wind energy development in eagle habitat. Interior’s issuance of the new rule caps a public review process that started last year, and extends eagle “take” permits – permission to kill or harass protected bald and golden eagles – from 5 years to 30 years. The rule provides the wind industry with assurances it needs to finance and
build sprawling energy projects in areas where eagle mortality is more likely, even though efforts
to offset eagle losses are still experimental or speculative. The American Bird Conservancy, Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, and others have expressed concern about Interior’s decision.
The final rule includes some concessions to conservation groups, such as requiring wind companies to report the mortality rates of eagles at new project sites, but wind facilities are not required to apply for a take permit or adopt the new rule’s mitigation measures. Although mortality at wind energy sites is not currently the leading cause of death for eagles, the wind industry poses a rapidly expanding threat and can convert large swaths of eagle foraging habitat into a danger zone for the species.
- The United States will likely have installed 100,000 wind turbines by 2020, which are expected to kill one million birds each year. In 2009, 22,000 turbines killed approximately 440,000 birds, according to research on bird mortality at wind facilities.
- The US goal of generating 20% of our electricity demand
with wind facilities is expected to impact nearly 20,000 square miles of
terrestrial habitat and 4,000 square miles of marine habitat. That is
an area the size of West Virginia, or nearly three times the size of New
Wildlife Takes The Short Straw
Interior has a history of ignoring conservation goals for the sake of expediting wind energy development. At the behest of the wind industry, Interior in early 2012 decided to make guidelines for the proper siting of wind projects on wildlife habitat voluntary for the industry, ignoring wildlife experts’ request to make them mandatory. Interior approved several projects expected to pose a high threat to wildlife, including the Spring Valley Wind project in Nevada, and the North Sky River Wind project in California. Interior is also preparing to green light the Chokecherry – Sierra Madre wind project in Wyoming, which preliminary environmental analysis estimates could kill as many as 64 golden eagles each year.
Interior has also been slow to take action against wind facilities that do kill large numbers of eagles. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Pine Tree wind project near Tehachapi, California has killed at least eight golden eagles in just a three year period, making it one of the most deadly projects on a per-turbine basis. No action has been taken against the Pine Tree Wind facility, and new wind projects have been permitted in the same area. The first U.S. government enforcement of laws protecting eagles at a wind energy site was brought into the spotlight last month after Duke Energy acknowledged that it built two wind projects in Wyoming “in a manner it knew beforehand would likely result in avian deaths.”
Conservation Measures Needed
Interior’s concession on monitoring and annual reports is a positive step, but it will be difficult for the new rule to live up to its pledge to provide transparency on eagle mortality. Instead of simply relying on the self-reporting mandated by the new rule, Interior should require independent monitoring at wind projects. We cannot expect all wind energy companies to faithfully live up to the monitoring requirement, and accurately report eagle fatalities. More importantly, Interior needs to quickly implement conservation plans that set aside key raptor habitat, and exclude harmful development from these areas. As threats to raptors increase, we need to provide them with the space needed to preserve resilience. This cannot be achieved with the haphazard and shotgun blast approach to project siting and approval that is beginning to fragment and degrade otherwise intact wildlife habitat.
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