Crowding the skies
Credit: Impact of wind energy on golden eagles heard by Carbon County commissioners | By Joshua Wood | The Saratoga Sun | May 19, 2022 | www.saratogasun.com ~~
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As wind energy projects continue to blow into northern Carbon County, various entities have sought to determine the impacts it has or will have on wildlife.
In 2021, the Board of Carbon County Commissioners (BOCCC) had considered a moratorium on any energy projects in the Shirley Basin area. The discussion of this moratorium came following a presentation from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department regarding a study of wind energy project impacts on the Medicine Bow Pronghorn Herd Unit. That moratorium ultimately failed on a 2-3 vote.
On May 3, another presentation was made before the county commissioners. This one was made by Mike Lockhart—a former employee of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service—regarding impacts on golden eagles. Lockhart, who worked for 33 years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he was conducting the study on behalf of his former employer and the United States Geological Service.
“Wind power in Carbon and Albany counties is already very extensive … and it’s already causing substantial harm to golden eagles and other wildlife that is largely overlooked. Personally, I’m opposed to any new energy development in these areas,” said Lockhart. “I think there’s enough and there are more than adequate places in other parts of the United States that can support wind expansion without threatening high wildlife values.”
The golden eagle is the most widely distributed species of eagle, ranging from the northernmost part of Alaska down into Mexico. According to Lockhart, the Shirley Basin and Laramie Basin are the most important locations in North America for the raptor.
“One of the things we have determined, absolutely, is that Shirley Basin and Laramie Basin are perhaps the two most important focal areas for Golden Eagles in the country. They’re hugely important and they support a resident breeding population, a non-breeding resident population,” Lockhart said. “They also serve as a migration corridor and support over-wintering birds through the winter.”
A large raptor, an adult golden eagle ranges in size from 26 to 40 inches in length and has a wingspan between 5 feet, 11 inches and 7 feet, 8 inches. According to Lockhart, approximately 113 golden eagles were captured and collared with either a PowerTrain Technology (PTT) collar or a Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) collar. The former is the typical radio collar which tracks movements while the latter can provide more data, but only uploads that data when in proximity of a cellular tower. Of the raptors which were collared, 80 of them were associated with wind power projects, said Lockhart.
The information gathered so far has shown the three largest mortality factors for golden eagles have been vehicle collisions, windmill strikes and electrocution. According to Lockhart, it was still unclear as to why windmill strikes were occurring with golden eagles. One hypothesis he brought up, however, referenced activities in the southwest in which people had been able to fly planes next to or near golden eagles and shoot the raptors. Lockhart said he believed because the golden eagle had evolved to be the “toughest things in the air” they weren’t afraid of anything else in the air.
Lockhart was not shy about his criticism of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during his presentation. Multiple times he said the entity was fiercely protective of golden eagles when he worked for them but had appeared to become less concerned of their survival in regards to wind energy projects. The questions he had regarding the entity’s involvement with wind energy projects included:
• How are they addressing golden eagle mortalities with wind power?
• How are they helping to site wind power farms away from high value habitats for eagles?
• How are they looking at the effect of clustered wind farms on Golden Eagles?
“It’s an interesting question and, unfortunately, it’s one that I think they’re doing an extremely poor job on and have punted on the whole issue of eagles and wind power,” said Lockhart. “Their management is based absolutely retroactively.”
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—under the Obama Administration—updated federal guidelines to allow for wind energy companies to operate high speed turbines for up to 30 years. While wind and other energy companies could kill up to 4,200 bald eagles each year without penalty, golden eagles could only be killed if companites took steps to minimize losses according to a May 4, 2016 Associated Press article.
According to Lockhart, continued growth of wind energy development in the Shirley and Laramie basins would be further detrimental to the golden eagle populations which either lived around or used those areas. He told the commissioners most golden eagle nests typically had one egg, as the golden eagle does not often lay multiple eggs.
Information from the Audubon Society states golden eagles will typically lay between one and three eggs, but never four or more eggs. Lockhart also said the golden eagle ages slower than most other birds. The first time young golden eagles take their first flight, according to the Audubon Society, is when they are about 60 to 70 days old. Golden eagles are among the longest living raptors in the world, with some having lived as long as 31 years in North America.
Due to the limited number of eggs golden eagles lay and the longevity of the species, Lockhart told the BOCCC he believed the overall impact of wind energy projects in the basins would be detrimental. Adding he believed the federal government did not want to address this issue, he said he believed the commissioners were one of the decision-making bodies which could take this information into account.
While sympathizing with Lockhart, the commissioners stated a larger consideration in their role was that of private property rights. Other considerations, especially on the state level, included encroachment of wind energy projects on core sage grouse areas, according to Commissioner John Espy.
The Board of Carbon County Commissioners will have met on May 17.
The next meeting of the Board of Carbon County Commissioners will be at 9 a.m. on June 7 at the Carbon Building – Courthouse Annex in Rawlins.
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