PALM SPRINGS – When eagles fly over San Gorgonio Pass, they confront a barrage of deadly obstacles among the whirring blades of windmills. It’s unclear how many birds are killed, but federal officials say the wind turbines here and at other wind farms are taking a significant toll.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it has received reports of 15 golden eagles killed by windmills in the Palm Springs area since 1999, an average of one eagle a year. That number, however, is most certainly a tiny fraction of the actual number of deaths because monitoring is spotty, reporting is voluntary and enforcement actions are rare.
The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that on average, more than 20 golden eagles are probably killed each year among the wind turbines of San Gorgonio Pass, out of an estimated 120 golden eagle deaths annually at wind farms across California.
Those deaths, or “takes,” of golden eagles are prohibited under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. And in order to avoid prosecution, wind energy companies or other companies that could cause eagle deaths are supposed to apply for permits specifying how many birds they can lawfully kill, and what steps they will take to offset those fatalities with other conservation measures.
Since the permits were introduced by the government in 2009, though, very few wind energy companies have stepped forward to apply. The first and only permit of the kind was approved last month for a wind project in Northern California’s Solano County, allowing up to five eagles to be killed there during the next five years.
None of the companies that operate more than 2,100 wind turbines in San Gorgonio Pass have yet applied for a permit to kill eagles, and federal wildlife officials hope that will change.
“Companies now see that there is a permit process that works, and they see that there is a real possibility of legal action. So, I’m hoping those two things together cause people to be serious and address incidental eagle take by coming and talking to us and eventually applying for a permit,” said Eric Davis, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sacramento-based assistant regional director for migratory birds and state programs.
The possibility of legal action, Davis said, was underscored by the $1 million settlement that the government won from Duke Energy Renewables last year after the company acknowledged killing eagles and other birds at wind farms in Wyoming.
For any company with wind turbines in areas with eagles, Davis said, “the company has a choice to make whether they want to apply for a permit and continue to operate lawfully, or do they take their chances.”
For many years, the federal government appears to have opted for a largely hands-off approach to wind energy that has allowed quick growth in the numbers of wind farms while procedures for tracking the impacts on birds have lagged behind. The Fish and Wildlife Service, with a limited staff and budget, has relied on voluntary self-reporting of fatalities by wind farms while trying to encourage the companies to apply for permits that require better monitoring. The agency has selectively enforced the laws against the killing of eagles, apparently trying to give companies time to comply while also using the Duke Energy case to raise a threat of prosecution.
Some environmental groups say that the government’s attempt to get a handle on eagle deaths is a step in the right direction, but that the voluntary permitting system is far from adequate and that there needs to be much better monitoring of bird deaths and the impacts on bird populations.
The American Bird Conservancy and the National Audubon Society strongly criticized a decision last year by the Fish and Wildlife Service that made it possible to grant permits to kill eagles for a period of up to 30 years. Five years had been the limit previously. Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold called the change outrageous, saying the government essentially “wrote the wind industry a blank check.”
The American Bird Conservancy sued the Department of the Interior in federal court last month, arguing that allowing such long-term permits would violate federal law and give wind energy companies a 30-year pass to kill bald eagles and golden eagles without knowing how that might affect their populations.
“We feel that the issuance of these permits has to be science-based. It has to be based on the cumulative impacts on eagles,” said Michael Hutchins, national coordinator of the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign. “You’ve got to look at this very carefully and make sure that these protected birds, which are iconic and especially important to the American people for a variety of reasons, that they are taken care of, that their populations are not allowed to decrease.”
As it faces criticism over the 30-year permit rule, the Fish and Wildlife Service has announced it will accept public input and assess environmental impacts while revising the eagle regulations. The agency will accept public comments until Sept. 22 and will hold a series of five public meetings across the country this summer, including a July 22 meeting in Sacramento.
Meanwhile, the agency announced on June 26 that it is issuing a five-year permit for the “take” of up to five golden eagles at the Shiloh IV Wind Project in Solano County.
The permit requires monitoring and annual reports by the company, Davis said. In order to make up for any losses of eagles, the company agreed to pay for retrofitting work on 133 electrical poles, which are owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., in order to prevent eagles from being electrocuted.
The permitting system relies on wind energy companies and other parties to be forthcoming about how many dead birds they find on their property. Critics say that system effectively can encourage companies to infrequently monitor and look the other way.
“My question is why should anybody tell the government that they’re killing federally protected birds?” Hutchins said in a telephone interview from Washington. “The system has got some serious issues.”
Hutchins said his organization would like to see the federal government move toward mandatory rather than voluntary guidelines.
Davis pointed out that the permits, when granted, require specific monitoring efforts.
“Ultimately, we are not there. So a bad actor could report zero” eagle deaths, Davis said. He said the companies that work with the agency and apply for permits are unlikely to fail to report bird deaths, but that is always a possibility. “Obviously the content of the report requires people to be honest.”
Davis said other people unaffiliated with wind companies, from regular citizens to federal employees, are also keeping an eye out for eagles and other birds, especially at wind farms on public lands. “You don’t have to have very strong binoculars to see eagles flying. So if they saw an eagle hit the turbine and reported it to us, and we got a report that said there weren’t any, we’d have questions.”
The American Bird Conservancy, based in The Plains, Va., has been trying to obtain specific data on the numbers and species of birds killed at specific wind farms. The organization has gone to court seeking the release of the data, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has responded that the information is proprietary.
“We have a problem with that,” Hutchins said. “It seems to me that the public should know how many birds and bats are being killed, especially protected species, and what’s being done to mitigate those losses.”
Tracking eagle deaths
In a study published last year, a group of Fish and Wildlife Service researchers reviewed public sources, including documents released by wind energy companies, and found a minimum of 85 eagle deaths reported at 32 wind energy facilities in the country between 1997 and June 2012. The study pointed out that there is a dearth of hard data about bird deaths at wind farms, and that other researchers have estimated as many as 67-75 golden eagles are killed each year by the wind turbines in the hills of Altamont Pass near Livermore.
The study, published in the Journal of Raptor Research, said more than half of the confirmed fatalities were discovered by a property owner or employees during routine operations. Less than one-fourth were found during surveys designed to document bird deaths.
“There are facilities where there has been no monitoring for any type of migratory bird fatality, and there are many of those facilities in the country,” said Joel Pagel, a specialist in raptor ecology with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the study’s lead author.
Pagel has been studying raptors for 31 years for the government and at times has climbed into an eagle nest while conducting research. He said that while this research paper concentrated on eagles, many other types of birds can be killed at wind farms, “and we don’t know what the overall impact is because the monitoring has been, well, virtually nonexistent.”
In another study published last year, researcher K. Shawn Smallwood estimated 573,000 bird fatalities annually at wind energy facilities in the United States, as well was 888,000 bat fatalities. The study in the peer-reviewed publication Wildlife Society Bulletin concluded that as the numbers of wind turbines in the country increases, “there is an urgent need to improve fatality monitoring methods.”
Biologists say birds of prey are often killed in other ways that have nothing to do with wind energy. They can be hit by cars, electrocuted by power lines, and poisoned by eating carcasses that contain rat poison or lead ammunition.
The recovery of bald eagles over the past four decades has been widely celebrated as a success made possible by the Endangered Species Act. The banning of DDT and the protection of habitat allowed populations to rebound, and bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007.
Golden eagles, which are found in Southern California and range widely across much of North America, are not listed as a threatened species by the federal government, though they are protected under other laws. In a 2013 study of golden eagle populations in the western U.S., federal wildlife researchers said surveys suggest a stable population region-wide. The researchers also found slightly increasing trends in golden eagle populations in northern areas, and slight declines in populations in southern areas of the West.
David Ward, a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association, pointed out that the eagle permits aren’t specific to the wind industry, and said the industry “is responsible for less than two percent of all documented annual golden eagle fatalities and only a handful of bald eagles ever in the history of the industry.”
The wind industry supports allowing permits of up to 30 years.
“The permit program also requires that eagle populations remain stable or even increasing, which will be ensured through pre-construction studies, revising projects prior to construction, post-construction monitoring of facility impacts, full mitigation for any impacts, and committing to take additional actions if impacts are larger than expected,” Ward said in an emailed statement. “This rule appropriately balances wildlife conservation with the realities of the private sector.”
Ward said eagle deaths occur at a very small number of wind facilities across the country, and those with significant rates of fatalities are especially rare. He said early wind farms at Altamont Pass, for instance, were developed “long before the interaction between eagles and turbines was understood.”
John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association, said in a recent op-ed article in a Colorado newspaper that the industry “has taken the most proactive and leading role of any utility-scale energy source to minimize wildlife impacts in general, and specifically for eagles, through constantly improving siting and avoidance and minimization techniques, and identifying options to offset the industry’s comparatively minimal impacts.”
The wind industry says deaths of eagles can be reduced by replacing numerous, faster-rotating old turbines with taller, slower-rotating turbines.
Other new types of wind turbines, including some designed with covers encircling the blades, have been developed to try to reduce the numbers of birds and bats killed. Those designs, however, have yet to be widely tried or embraced by the wind industry.
There have also been efforts to develop technologies to detect bird collisions with turbines, including computerized high-resolution photography, audio sensors, and thermal imaging systems that can detect birds.
Bird conservation groups say one of the most important steps that can be taken to minimize impacts on birds is to select sites for future wind farms that aren’t in critical bird habitats. The American Bird Conservancy developed a nationwide map showing areas where it says wind development poses significant risks. Areas near Palm Springs are marked in orange on the map as areas of “high importance,” and Hutchins said that indicates a need for caution and careful assessment of potential risks.
NextEra Energy Resources LLC, a subsidiary of Juno Beach, Florida-based NextEra Energy Inc., operates three wind energy facilities with about 110 turbines at San Gorgonio Pass, said Steve Stengel, a spokesman for the company.
“We have not had any eagle issues at our Palm Springs wind farms,” Stengel said, and the company is not applying for an eagle permit.
Ornithologists have regularly spotted golden eagles in areas around San Gorgonio Pass. One nesting pair of eagles live in Chino Canyon, and another pair frequent Big Morongo Canyon, said Kurt Leuschner, an ornithologist and professor of natural resources at College of the Desert.
“On either side of that wind farm, you’ve got a couple of known pairs of eagles, and there are bound to be others, too,” Leuschner said. “The chance of a strike, with one of those taller wind turbines especially, it’s a real possibility.”
Jeffrey Lovich, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said he saw two dead golden eagles while studying desert tortoises at the Mesa Wind Farm, one in 1995 and another in 1997. Both birds, he said, struck windmill blades or structures.
Other birds injured by wind turbines – including great horned owls, barn owls, red-tailed hawks and brant geese – have been brought for treatment to the Coachella Valley Wild Bird Center in Indio, which cares for injured birds. Linda York, the center’s director, said she has seen roughly two dozen birds injured by turbines in her 18 years running the center.
“Usually it’s a wing injury. The wing’s literally lopped off, gone,” York said. None of the birds that have arrived with such injuries survived.
San Gorgonio Pass has the third largest concentration of wind turbines in California, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Not including several of the smaller wind farms, the turbines in San Gorgonio Pass generated at least 1.6 million megawatt hours last year, a significant contribution to the state’s renewable energy goals.
But ever since the windmills began to go up in the desert starting in the 1980s, some have questioned the costs for wildlife.
Huge numbers of birds use the pass as a migration corridor. Birds including California gnatcatchers and Bell’s vireos are found here, along with willow flycatchers and Swainson’s hawks.
Les Starks, who lives in Snow Creek, said that before many of the turbines went up along State Route 111, he used to spot many red-tailed hawks and golden eagles.
In the area of Whitewater Canyon, he used to see vast numbers of bats, and flocks of vultures would fill the cottonwood trees during an annual migration.
“Now I see nothing. And so it’s really affected the avian life,” Starks said. He said that if he spots a red-tailed hawk near Snow Creek nowadays, it is a rare sighting.