The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced proposed changes to its Eagle Conservation and Management Program that would permit thousands of industry-related eagle deaths. The Service requests comments on changes that would modify regulations for permits issued for projects, such as wind-energy fields, where many bald and golden eagles are unavoidably injured or killed, known as “take.” The agency also opens a simultaneous public comment period on a proposed programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS).
“The proposed regulations provide a path forward for maintaining stable or increasing eagle populations while also ensuring that limited and incidental take of eagles that occurs as a result of otherwise legal activity is tracked, permitted and, where possible, reduced,” Service Director Dan Ashe said.
The proposed regulations would once again attempt to establish 30-year take permits, a move that was challenged by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), resulting in a 2015 court decision invalidating the agency’s previous attempt to establish the 30-year permits in a 2013 rule. The PEIS is being proposed to answer some of the concerns raised in that challenge, and the current proposal also requires recurring five-year reviews throughout the permit life. “Under the proposed revisions, only applicants who commit to adaptive management measures to ensure the preservation of eagles will be considered for permits with terms longer than five years,” the agency said.
Many projects have operational lifetimes that far exceed 5 years, which has discouraged project proponents from applying for eagle take permits, which has also meant that possible conservation measures and mitigation efforts have not been implemented, the agency said. “We need to issue permits that align better, both in duration and the scale of conservation measures, with the longer term duration of industrial activities, such as electricity distribution and energy production. Extending the maximum permit duration is consistent with other federal permitting for development and infrastructure projects,” according to the proposal.
Regulations for issuing take permits are administered under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (Eagle Act). Bald eagles, once reduced to fewer than 500 pairs in the lower 48 states, were removed from the Endangered Species Act list in 2007 due to recovery, but they are still protected under the Eagle Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Golden eagles have been protected under the Eagle Act since 1962.
As of a 2009 survey, bald eagles were estimated at about 143,000 birds in the entire U.S., and the proposed take rate aims to maintain at least that population level. The agency estimated that under the proposed liberal alternative, a take of 6,300 eagles could be allowed annually, and under the conservative alternative, an annual take of 4,200 eagles would be allowed nationally, according to the status report.
Golden eagles are estimated to number around 40,000 birds in the U.S., according to a 2014 composite population estimation model. The agency admits that there are concerns that the golden eagle population “might be declining.” Touting new information gleaned from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Lab, and information from dead satellite-tagged golden eagles, the agency estimates that 56 percent of golden eagle deaths are human-caused (anthropogenic mortality), and that ongoing human-caused mortality likely exceeds the proposed 2,000 individuals sustainable take level, “perhaps considerably.”
“We’re concerned that this new plan will still allow the killing of thousands of eagles. This new rule must require effective, tested mitigation to reduce any eagle deaths to an absolute minimum. We also need better monitoring of eagle mortality, with data collected by independent third parties and made publicly available, so that adjustments can be made to prevent negative impacts on eagle populations. And we’ll be looking for standards that mandate proper siting of wind energy facilities, away from sensitive areas for birds, so that impacts to eagles can be minimized. Any rule that aims to ‘protect and maintain eagle populations’ will require these steps,” ABC’s Michael Hutchins said in response to the agency’s announcement.
Comments on the proposal and the PEIS are due thirty days after publication, scheduled for May 6.