A new federal rule will extend the length of permits needed to be held harmless in the deaths of eagles hitting wind turbines or other tall structures.
The rule, which takes effect Jan. 8, extends to 30 years the maximum time companies are allowed to qualify for eagle “take” permits. The permits were previously limited to five years. The wind and solar industries lobbied for the changes, saying the five-year time frame was too short for many renewable energy projects.
“The changes in this permitting program will help the renewable energy industry and others develop projects that can operate in the longer term, while ensuring bald and golden eagles continue to thrive for future generations,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewel said in a statement.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it will only approve extended, 30-year permits if applicants commit to experimental management techniques to ensure the preservation of eagles. If granted, the permits would be reviewed every five years to make sure incidental eagle deaths or injuries are kept to a minimum.
Bald eagles were taken off the endangered species list in 2007, but they remain protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Wind turbines and other tall structures, such as electricity transmission towers, pose particular hazards to eagles and other raptors. When searching for prey, the birds look down and don’t always see hazards until it’s too late.
Eagles have a long-standing significance for many American Indian tribes, including the Osage Nation. The tribe opposes two wind projects planned for Osage County because they may interfere with nesting eagles. Some conservationists also don’t want wind turbines dotting the landscape, which is part of the tallgrass prairie.
TradeWind Energy Inc.’s Mustang Run project in Osage County will be 136 megawatts. TradeWind is in talks to purchase another Osage County project, the 150-megawatt Osage Wind development, from Wind Capital Group, said spokeswoman Laurie Roberts.
TradeWind hasn’t yet decided if it will apply for a voluntary eagle “take” permit for its Mustang Run project, Roberts said. The company estimates it will start construction by early 2015, with the wind farm operational later that year.
Eagles begin arriving in Oklahoma in November and December, with the population peaking in January and February, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Each year, between 800 and 2,000 eagles are in Oklahoma.
Duke Energy Renewables Inc., a unit of utility Duke Energy Corp., last month pleaded guilty to violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act at two of its wind projects in Wyoming. The company agreed to pay $1 million in fines and restitution in the deaths of 14 golden eagles and 149 other protected birds.
A study earlier this year by researchers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found 85 eagles had been killed at 32 wind farms across the country from 2007 to 2012. None of the reports were from wind farms in Oklahoma. Researchers excluded eagle fatalities at California’s Altamont Pass, a notorious site for eagle deaths from the many wind turbines installed along a ridge.
Separately, researchers at Oklahoma State University, the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently published a paper looking at all bird fatalities linked to large wind turbines. On average, about 234,000 birds are killed annually by collisions with turbine monopoles, their research estimated.
“We found support for an increase in mortality with increasing turbine height and support for differing mortality rates among regions, with per turbine mortality lowest in the Great Plains,” said Scott Loss, assistant professor at OSU’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management.
Loss’s wind turbine paper was the second in a series on bird mortality. The first study estimated outdoor cats kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds each year in the United States.
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