A proposed wind farm breezing toward approval by North Dakota regulators deserves more study on its potential risks to bald eagles, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official said Tuesday.
“I would not put this in a low-risk category,” Kevin Shelley, ecological services supervisor for North Dakota, told reporters after meeting with the state Public Service Commission.
The three-member PSC is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a site permit for Rolette Power Development’s $175 million, 100.4-megawatt wind farm with up to 59 turbines about three miles south of Rolette in north-central North Dakota.
Two members, chairwoman Julie Fedorchak and Brian Kalk, signaled their approval Tuesday.
Fedorchak said the community is “desperate” to get the project going, noting the packed houses for two public hearings in Rolette. Among the developers are more than two-dozen participating landowners within the project’s footprint, several dozen local investors and community development organizations.
“Ultimately, if they kill an eagle … that burden is on them financially,” she said. “They know that they’re the ones that bear the risk for this.”
After the public hearing June 29, the FWS notified the developer of bald eagle nests in proximity to the 14,720-acre project area, prompting the PSC to add the Nov. 2 hearing.
Shelley said Rolette Power was first informed of bald eagles in the area in 2013 and initially made “a good effort” to work with the FWS to address the issue. But he said he hasn’t heard from them since December 2014 and they haven’t provided an eagle use study, which the service recommends should take two years to determine where the eagles spend their time.
“We think they truncated the process,” Shelley said.
Such studies are used to calculate how many eagles a wind project is expected to kill during its lifespan. Developers can then apply to the FWS for an incidental take permit that allows for killing a certain number of the federally protected birds without suffering the penalty of $5,000 and up to one year in prison.
According to documents filed with the PSC, an environmental consultant hired by Rolette Power performed an initial site assessment of eagle use, identifying nests about 2.7 miles, 5 miles and 9.8 miles from the proposed turbine locations, but none within the project area.
The PSC has no setback requirement between wind turbines and eagle nests. During Tuesday’s work session with the PSC on how to improve communications about acceptable setback distances, Shelley said the FWS considers 10 miles as a low-risk “filter.”
Rolette Power project manager Warren Enyart wrote in an affidavit filed Nov. 2 that based on the risk assessment by consultant Western EcoSystems Technology Inc., the project “is not likely to significantly adversely affect eagle populations.”
Still, Rolette Power has committed to several measures designed to minimize impacts on eagles, including working with landowners and the county to remove dead livestock and roadkill that might attract the birds, Enyart wrote. He wrote that the avoidance measures will be developed in coordination with the FWS.
The number of active bald eagle nests in North Dakota has skyrocketed from about 30 to 170 in the past decade, according to a state Game and Fish Department database that’s based on surveys and reports and doesn’t include all nests.
Commissioners said conversations about setbacks will become more frequent as new federal regulations restricting emissions from coal-fired power plants push wind energy development. North Dakota already has more than 990 wind turbines in service and more than 20 projects in the works.
“Wind developers need to get with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and develop a framework of what’s appropriate,” Kalk said.
Last May, Minnesota Power reported finding a bald eagle carcass 150 feet south of a wind turbine at the Bison 1 Wind Project in western North Dakota. The FWS determined the eagle had been struck, but it was unclear whether that was from a wind turbine blade or a vehicle, the necropsy report stated.
Shelley said the matter remains under investigation.
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