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New federal rule loosens industry restrictions to protect eagles

The once-endangered bald eagle has run smack into human progress. Federal regulators have approved a controversial proposal to allow the take, or unintended killing, of the protected birds without penalty, under a single permit issued for as long as 30 years.

In contrast, a hunter killing an eagle without a permit could be fined $15,000 and jailed for six months. In other “take” cases, a permit is required for each kill.

The loosening of permit restrictions is designed, like the permits themselves, not to unfairly penalize industries using equipment such as wind turbines or power lines. The permit requires the take to be monitored and periodically reviewed, and for the permittee to show measures have been taken to reduce the number of birds killed.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the rule used the best science to promote conservation of the bird. “The service has a long history of working cooperatively with multiple industry sectors through the permitting process to reduce impacts to eagles and other federally protected wildlife species,” he said.

Wildlife groups such the American Bird Conservancy and the National Audubon Society said the ruling doesn’t do enough.

“It’s a tough issue,” said Jim Elliott, director of the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw. “There’s a lot of emotional attachment to that bird. It’s about finding a balance between the risks and the needs of a wind company or utility.”

But, as with the original rules written in 2009 when the eagle was removed from the Endangered Species list, the concern is how closely the operations and the take will be monitored, he said, because the monitors would be hired by the companies.

Elliott expects the rule to continue to be revised as more is learned about its impact, he said.

The ferocious-eyed bald eagle is the national symbol and an iconic animal in the federal Endangered Species program, having recovered from virtually wiped out in the lower 48 states by pesticide poisoning to more than 140,000 birds today.

In South Carolina, the eagle has come back from as few as 14 nesting pairs to more than 200 in 40 years. It’s now common to see the raptor cruising the Lowcountry skies or in trees around suburban ponds.

The ruling could have an impact here. Wind turbines are beginning to go up on land, and wind farms are being studied offshore. The birds now are occasionally lost to things such as pollution poisoning or electrocution by accidental grounding while on power lines.

They also get struck by cars and shot. As Elliott spoke Tuesday, center staff treated an eagle found with its foot shot off.

The issue became hotly controversial in June when U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., proposed an amendment to federal regulations characterized as eliminating penalties for accidental bird deaths such as from wind turbine blades. The amendment’s language, though, would have removed all penalties under that particular regulation, although not all regulations protecting eagles.

Duncan was forced to remove the “accidental” language from the amendment to the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriations bill in the House of Representatives because of a House rule prohibiting legislating in an amendment to an appropriations bill made from the House floor, spokesman Allen Klump said then.