TOLEDO – Dotted across the rural Iowa landscape – built in gnarly cottonwoods situated along creeks that cut through farm fields – active bald eagle nests are often a well-kept secret among the local farmers and rural residents who wish for nothing more than their nation’s symbol to be left alone.
Once on the brink of extinction in the 1960s due to the prevalence of the pesticide DDT in the environment, today’s bald eagle populations – including Iowa’s – are robust with the number of nests in Iowa estimated at more than 500 by the Iowa DNR (Dept. of Natural Resources).
But despite the bald eagle’s healthy population trend, some Tama County residents are concerned the local eagle populations are nonetheless facing a looming threat on the horizon – industrial wind turbines.
During the most recent meeting of the Tama County Board of Conservation which took place on April 4, board member Carolyn Adolphs of rural Geneseo Township addressed her fellow board members in regards to Apex Clean Energy’s Winding Stairs Wind project currently in development in the eastern quarter of the county – specifically citing her concerns for local wildlife including bald eagles.
“I just wanted to bring it to your attention,” Adolphs said. “What concerns me is … somebody a mile from [T. F. Clark Park] is signed up [for a wind turbine lease] … there are eagle nests around there.”
Adolphs went on to ask the board and Conservation Director Stephen Mayne if they wanted to “take a stand” against future wind energy development or rather “let us in the northern [parts of the] county battle it out.”
Director Mayne responded that he could not take an official position but that he had received at least one call in recent days from a concerned citizen about eagle nests in the Winding Stairs Wind project’s footprint.
According to Stephanie Shepherd, wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR’s Resources Wildlife Diversity Program, Tama County has documented six active bald eagle nests, one inactive, and one of unknown status. A nest is considered ‘active’ when there has been nesting activity reported within the last three years.
None of the documented nests are in the Winding Stairs Wind project footprint, Shepherd said when provided with a map of the project on April 12.
There are, however, at least two other nests in the county – not currently documented by the Iowa DNR – that fall in the project’s footprint including an active nest located in Oneida Township and one in and around T. F. Clark Park in Buckingham Township
On April 12, an eagle was observed on the Oneida nest and along Wolf Creek near where the T. F. Clark Park nest is believed to be located.
While Tama County is certainly not a hotspot of eagle activity, and the bald eagle is no longer considered an endangered species in the United States – it was delisted in 2007 – bald eagles are still a protected species under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which dates back to 1940.
The act prohibits anyone – without a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior – from ‘taking’ bald or golden eagles, including their parts, nests, or eggs.
As such, a wind energy company may apply for and receive eagle incidental take permits which, once obtained, allow the authorized lethal take of eagles at wind energy facilities, as well as the authorized disturbance of a nest during project construction if a nest occurs in close proximity to a road.
Such permits can be issued on a short-term basis but are not to exceed 30 years, per the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In Iowa, the DNR does include eagle nests in its recommendations to wind energy companies during a project’s development phase but the companies “don’t have to listen to us,” Shepherd said.
There are currently no state regulations governing wind energy development in Iowa, Shepherd said in a letter first drafted in March of 2020 in regards to wind energy as it relates to the Iowa DNR Wildlife Bureau’s review process.
“Most of the time [companies] do [listen] – at least in part,” Shepherd continued, “but we may be getting to a place now where there’s fewer places – fewer open places – for wind farms. There’s maybe been a little bit of pushback [now].”
Eagle nest recommendations
The Iowa DNR’s official recommendations for wind turbine construction advises companies to avoid all public lands by at least a one mile buffer, avoid 2,000+ acre public land complexes by at least a two mile buffer, avoid bird conservation areas altogether, avoid known bald eagle nest sites with activity unknown by at least three miles, and avoid known active bald eagle nest sites by at least five miles.
But, again, these are merely recommendations. Instead, eagle and wildlife enthusiasts must rely on wind energy companies to act in good faith when it comes to the siting of wind turbines – something Chris Behrens, a rural Clutier resident who lives in the Winding Stairs Wind project footprint, expresses skepticism about.
“The Iowa DNR recommends that turbines are not sited within five miles of an active bald eagle nest,” Behrens said one day before the grassroots group Tama County Against Turbines – of which Behrens is a member – was set to host a town hall about the Apex project.
“[The DNR’s recommendations] are not part of Tama County’s current [wind energy] ordinance. Twelve of the 14 easements Apex has [currently] signed are within five miles of an active bald eagle nest,” Behrens continued. “The other two easements are within a two mile radius of Clark’s Park, a wildlife refuge purchased with assistance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”
Several of the properties that have easements with Apex Clean Energy are also enrolled in federally funded programs to enhance migratory bird habitat, Behrens said, meaning the landowners receive government funding to establish these areas and tax incentives to maintain them in addition to any farm rental income.
Location, location, location
In an April 1 letter sent to Behrens by the Big Bluestem Audubon Society chapter – which serves Ames and the surrounding areas – chapter vice-president Doug Harr, who retired from the Iowa DNR as a wildlife biologist after 38 years, told Behrens “danger to birds and bats – of all kinds – by wind turbines often depends on the old real estate [adage] of ‘location, location, location.’”
“The main way to minimize collisions for birds and bats with wind turbines,” Harr continued, “is locating them in areas with as little habitat as possible.”
During his time with the Iowa DNR, Harr and a colleague provided input to companies regarding wind farm placement in an effort to minimize bird and bat mortality from collisions with wind turbine blades.
“Since as many as 24 bats can be killed by one wind turbine each year,” Harr wrote, “and an average of perhaps two birds (of any species) are killed annually per turbine in Iowa, we are far more concerned about the mortality of bats than birds.”
Harr told Behrens wind turbines are “noisy” and “an eyesore on the landscape” and as such “certainly do not represent green energy very well.”
“However, they are a greener source of energy than fossil fuel,” Harr continued, “and even more than Iowa’s agriculture-produced ethanol. Turbines are another cog in the wheel of industrialized agriculture, owned and operated primarily by large corporations. For at least the last decade, there have existed wind energy capture designs that will not kill bats and birds.”
Harr went on to write such designs may not be as profitable as the current wind turbine models being erected, before adding, “and we know of none of these designs that have yet been placed in Iowa.”
For people like Behrens and Adolphs, any bird or bat killed by a wind turbine is important and represents a bigger fight.
“I particularly think that these turbines should not be placed on some of the best farmland in the world, with no thought to future generations,” Adolphs said in a follow-up email. “That is just a crying shame. … [M]oney is the big factor.”
In his final paragraph to Behrens, Harr expressed dismay that while the current leadership in Iowa strongly backs wind energy and the tax base wind energy corporations produce for Iowa, such leaders seem to have “very little concern about possible effects upon wildlife.”
“Unless we can change Iowa’s elected government to include people with far more conservation concern,” Harr wrote, “there is little chance we can do much to stop the expansion of wind farms in sometimes dangerous areas for our wildlife.”
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