The Interior Department says it will change the rules and issue permits that would let wind farms kill eagles for up to 30 years, or six times longer than the current permits allow.
Wind farms – the fields of windmill turbines that dot the landscape – kill about 440,000 birds of all species every year, according to a government estimate, which raises questions about the balance between the renewable energy resource and the very environment it is supposed to be helping.
“Permits to kill eagles just seems unpatriotic, and 30 years is a long time for some of these projects to accrue a high death rate,” said Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican and a critic of the Interior Department.
He and fellow Republicans said the administration has been tougher on traditional energy sources such as oil and gas when it comes to bird kills, but has been more lenient on renewable energy.
“There needs to be a balanced approach in protecting migratory birds, while also supporting domestic energy, and with this newest decision, the administration has failed to achieve that,” Mr. Vitter said.
The new rule will officially be published on Monday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which issued the rule, said while it’s raising the maximum permit to 30 years, it could still issue wind farm permits for less than that.
The permits may also include requirements for extra steps the wind farms must take to try to reduce eagle kills – particularly if future evidence suggests the turbines are killing more eagles than expected.
But the service said it makes sense to grant a longer eagle-kill permit because renewable energy projects’ lifespan is generally far longer than the 5 years that are currently allowed.
Killing bald or golden eagles is generally prohibited by federal law, but gives the government the power to grant exemptions.
“Permits may authorize lethal take that is incidental to an otherwise lawful activity, such as mortalities caused by collisions with wind turbines, powerline electrocutions, and other potential sources of incidental take,” the agency said in its official rule posting.
The agency said eagle populations have been about stable over the last 40 years, but acknowledged a lot of uncertainty about wind farms and their effects.
“In the case of managing eagle populations in the face of energy development, there is considerable uncertainty. For example, evidence shows that in some areas or specific situations, large soaring birds, specifically raptors, are especially vulnerable to colliding with wind turbines,” the agency said.
“However, we are uncertain about the relative importance of different factors that influence that risk,” the agency said. “We are also uncertain which strategies would best mitigate the effects of wind energy developments on raptors. Populations of raptors with relatively low fecundity, such as golden eagles, are more susceptible to population declines due to new sources of mortality.”
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