More than a month after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it had reports of 15 golden eagles killed at wind farms in the area, the agency has retracted that number and said most of the eagle deaths actually occurred elsewhere in California.
Eric Davis, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sacramento-based assistant regional director for migratory birds and state programs, originally provided the number during a July interview with The Desert Sun, saying the golden eagle deaths had been documented at wind farms in the Palm Springs/San Gorgonio Pass area.
The Desert Wind Energy Association, a consortium of wind energy companies, challenged that number. And the Fish and Wildlife Service – responding to Freedom of Information Act requests from The Desert Sun and a lawyer for the association – reviewed its records.
On Monday, federal officials said most of the eagle deaths actually occurred at Altamont Pass in Alameda County and were incorrectly classified in a database as having occurred in the San Gorgonio Pass area.
“Most of those 15 were inappropriately assigned to San Gorgonio Pass, that really were Altamont,” Davis said in a telephone interview about the database change. “That is obviously embarrassing, but I’m glad that we have found the error.”
With that correction made, Davis said there are now two confirmed cases of dead golden eagles in the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Resource Area since 1997. The exact causes of those deaths are not clear.
One eagle death was documented during a 1997-98 bird monitoring study published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which said that “a wounded immature, female golden eagle was found by a Zond Mesa employee and taken to Coachella (Valley) Wild Bird Center, where it was euthanized.”
Davis said the other documented case came in 2012, when a dead golden eagle happened to be found near one wind facility.
“We sent that carcass to our laboratory, and the cause of death was inconclusive, so we have not concluded that it was struck by a wind turbine,” Davis said. “The carcass was just too far gone to make conclusions. But it certainly was a golden eagle death in the area.”
David Baron, a Palm Springs attorney representing the Desert Wind Energy Association, said Monday that the companies that belong to the association have not had a single eagle death at their facilities.
“We’re glad that the service has acknowledged the error. We are extremely confident that our members have not killed any eagles ever down here, as we’ve monitored very closely and are concerned about those kinds of things,” said Baron, who is awaiting records from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“It’ll be interesting to see the location of where they claim there have been two deaths in the last 18 to 20 years. We suspect it will be either very high up on a ridge line or technically outside of the Coachella Valley.”
Chris Lucker, a spokesman for the Desert Wind Energy Association, said in an email that “there has never been evidence that the windmills in the North Palm Springs Coachella Valley floor have been responsible for killing a single eagle.”
Any such deaths, or “takes,” of golden eagles would be prohibited under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
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 conservation measures.
Since the permits were introduced by the government in 2009, few wind energy companies have stepped forward to apply. The first and only permit of the kind was approved in June for the Shiloh IV wind project in Northern California’s Solano County.
Despite the drastic reduction in the number of confirmed eagle deaths in the area, Davis said the Fish and Wildlife Service stands by its earlier estimate that about 20 golden eagles are likely killed each year among the wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass area, out of an estimated 120 golden eagle deaths annually at California wind farms. He said it’s a rough estimate for the area calculated during the 1997-98 bird monitoring study, and that the lack of scientific data since then points to a need for more monitoring.
Asked how the agency arrived at the number, Davis said: “We used that local data (during the 1997-98 study) to create an estimate that for every 32 megawatts of installed wind facilities in that wind resource area, there would be one eagle death.”
Baron said, however, that the estimate provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service “was not founded on any credible evidence, and even though they may still claim there’s going to be 20 takes per year in the San Gorgonio Pass area, I think the data defies that estimate.”
“We just think their estimate is completely wrong,” Baron said. “In terms of the Desert Wind Energy Association, we stand by our statement that our wind energy operations have not resulted in a single eagle death.”
There are some wind energy operators in San Gorgonio Pass, Baron said, that don’t belong to the association.
“We know what takes place at our wind farms,” Baron said. “We would know if we had a problem, and we don’t.”
“Clearly, we do not want to be involved in any eagle take. They’re gorgeous, gorgeous animals, and it’s a legitimate concern, and that’s why we’ve taken every precaution we know how to ensure that our wind energy operations do not result in any injury or death to eagles,” Baron said.
As for the misclassified records of eagle deaths, Davis said that as officials examined the records on a spreadsheet, they noticed some referred to the San Gorgonio Pass area as well as to Alameda County, where the Altamont Pass wind farm is located.
“When we dug more into the records, we discovered that the Alameda part was correct and somehow the San Gorgonio note was incorrect,” Davis said. “We don’t know how it got listed that way.”
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