Conservationists and wind energy advocates from across the Midwest gathered in Bloomington on Thursday evening for a federal hearing on the best way to manage the often lethal mix of wild eagles and wind turbines.
It was the second of five hearings that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting nationwide as it revises eagle protection regulations for wind farms and similar projects.
Even before the doors opened, partisans clashed over the core issue: a new form of federal permit that allows wind farms to kill a limited number of eagles if the deaths are unintentional.
The permits can be a “conservative way” to protect eagles while promoting wind energy, said Lisa Daniels, executive director of Windustry, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that promotes community-owned wind energy.
“The birds don’t belong to these companies – they belong to the American people,” replied Michael Hutchins, national coordinator of the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird Smart Wind Energy Program, in an interview before the meeting.
The meeting took on an open-house format, for which Daniels was grateful. “I expected to see a room full of people screaming into a microphone,” she said. “This de-fuses the whole thing. This is about facts.”
Thousands of eagles, bats and birds nationwide die each year when struck by wind turbine blades.
As a result, the growing demand for clean energy has sparked protests by eagle protection activists in Minnesota, home to one of the nation’s largest eagle populations.
“The eagle is a national trust. It’s a symbol of our liberty and freedom,” said Mary Hartman, a Rochester resident who has become active in Minnesota eagle protection. “It’s our responsibility to protect the eagle for people in America who don’t have them.”
Alicia King, communications coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Program, said the public hearing was an opportunity for interest groups to get a holistic perspective on how the service manages eagles nationwide.
The service hopes to learn about how to improve its monitoring and research and mitigate the impact developers have on eagle life expectancy and the birds’ ability to breed.
“Our big goal is to make sure that people recognize that they have the opportunity to help us,” King said. “How do we ensure that those eagle populations will be here for future generations?”
In February, Minnesota regulators pulled the plug on a proposed wind farm project near Red Wing by AWA Goodhue Wind, demanding that the company provide better research on the number of eagles and bats that fly through the area.
30-year permit to kill
In 2009, the Fish and Wildlife Service offered companies a chance to prevent prosecution for eagle deaths by applying for a five-year permit to legally kill or harm a low number of bald or golden eagles. A revision, proposed in December 2013 under pressure by wind industry leaders, would extend the period covered by a permit from five to 30 years, among other changes.
The American Bird Conservancy, one of the groups that helped block the Goodhue County project, in June sued the Department of the Interior for implementing the 30-year revision without adequate impact studies and public input.
“A day after we announced that we were suing, they announced this public [hearing] process,” Hutchins said.
Hutchins and other environmentalist groups don’t just oppose the 30-year permits – they want the entire permitting process overhauled. He said that the permits should be mandatory, not voluntary, and that wind companies should be required to report publicly all eagle mortalities.
Wind industry advocates argue that the 30-year permit provides more stability for investors who supply the essential upfront capital.
“If the permit expires and you’re still turning wind turbines, it leaves you in noncompliance,” Daniels said. “This is the conservative way to address the risk.”
Hartman, who arrived early with a group of activists, responded: “Eagles don’t really care about certainty for developers, and neither should we.”
Daniels argued that wind energy companies take eagle protection very seriously. But she said requiring companies to report all eagle deaths publicly would invite criticism that might put the deaths out of context. Wind turbines are just one of many causes of eagle fatalities, including vehicle accidents, collisions with transmission wires and airstrikes, she noted.
Several companies have applied for the five-year permits, but only one has been issued so far, for a project in Solano County, Calif.
Wind energy facilities have killed at least 67 golden and bald eagles in the past five years, but the figure could be much higher, one new study has found. Only one company – Duke Energy, in November 2013 – has ever been prosecuted for killing federally protected birds.
Minnesota derived 14.3 percent of its electricity from wind farms in 2012, the fourth-highest in the country.
About 22,000 wind turbines were in operation in the United States in 2009, and by 2030 wind energy growth is expected to affect almost 20,000 square miles of land, according to the American Bird Conservancy.