DOI broadens eagle kill law

The US Interior Department (DOI) is extending by six-fold up to 30 years the term of permits that allow for the incidential killing and injuring of bald and golden eagles at wind farms and other renewable energy facilities.

Owners can only qualify for an extended permit under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act if they agree to “adaptive management measures” that help ensure preservation of eagles. The 30-year tenure is subject to a recurring five-year review process throughout the permit life.

“These permits have been for a maximum of five years – a period that does not reflect the actual operating parameters of most renewable energy projects or other similar long term project operations,” the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), a DOI agency, says in a statement.

The longer-term permits will be closely monitored to ensure that allowable “take” numbers are not exceeded, and that conservation measures are in place and effective over the life of the permit. The agency says that the revised guidelines will increase transparency and accountability by making annual reports and five-year compilations of eagle fatalities available to the public.

The measure comes several weeks after Duke Energy’s renewables unit pleaded guilty to killing eagles and other birds at two Wyoming wind farms. It agreed to pay $1m in fines and restitution in a settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ).

It was the first time the federal government has enforced environmental laws protecting birds against wind farms.  DOJ brought the charges under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

According to the Associated Press, not a single wind farm owner has a permit authorizing the killing, harm or harassment of eagles under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, although the permits first became available in 2009.

Earlier this year, FWS said it had credible evidence of 85 eagle deaths at 34 wind farms in ten states since 1997. Most of the fatalities occurred in the past five years.

John Anderson, director of siting policy at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), says the permit programme promotes eagle conservation.  He says the new rule will give permit holders a “degree of longer-term legal and financial certainty, which is important to the viability of any business.”

He also contends that the wind industry does more to address its impacts on eagles than any of the other, far greater sources of eagle fatalities known to wildlife experts.  AWEA says that fatalities of golden eagles at modern wind facilities represent less than 2% of all documented sources of human-caused eagle fatalities.

The birds are also killed by electrocutions, poisonings, gunshots and collisions with airborne objects.

Some conservation groups say that DOI is condoning the killing of America’s national bird.

"Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check," says Audubon Society chief executive David Yarnold. The group says it would challenge the decision.

The Natural Resources Defense Council says FWS rejected recommendations from both the wind industry and conservation groups that would have better protected eagles, while allowing wind energy projects to go forward.

"This rule could lead to many unnecessary deaths of eagles. And that's a wrong-headed approach. We can, and must, protect wildlife as we promote clean, renewable energy,” Frances Beinecke, president of NRDC, says in a statement.

FWS officials were not immediately available for comment.