The free pass is over. On Friday, Duke Energy Renewables pleaded guilty to the deaths of more than 150 protected birds at two of its Wyoming wind power sites and agreed to pay $1 million in fines. It marks the first time a wind energy company been prosecuted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, despite the fact that numerous projects are known killing grounds of protected avian species.

"In this plea agreement, Duke Energy Renewables acknowledges that it constructed these wind projects in a manner it knew beforehand would likely result in avian deaths," said Robert G. Dreher, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

The Justice Department convicted the company—a subsidary of the North Carolina-based energy giant Duke Energy—of killing 14 golden eagles and 149 other birds, including including hawks, blackbirds, larks, wrens and sparrows, at its "Campbell Hill" and "Top of the World" projects between 2009 and 2013.

Of the $1 million, the $400,000 fine will go to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund. The state of Wyoming will receive $100,000. The remainder will be used to purchase land or easements to protect golden eagle habitat and for projects that prevent golden eagle deaths at Wyoming turbines.

At the sites, the company will continue to employ field biologists who radio for turbines to be temporarily shut down when they spot an eagle, and to voluntarily report bird deaths to the government. And it'll install new radar technology, similar to that used in Afghanistan to track incoming missiles. Duke will also have to submit a plan to cut down on avian deaths at its four Wyoming wind farms, and apply for an eagle take permit.

Bird advocacy groups applauded the settlement as an important step, but are pushing for more enforcement. "It takes more than one symbolic action to prove there is a real environmental cop on the beat," Mike Daulton, vice president of government relations for the National Audubon Society, which supports properly sited wind projects, told Greenwire.

More convictions might be in the offing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating 18 bird-death cases involving wind-power facilities, reports the AP's Dina Cappiello, and about a half dozen have been referred to the Justice Department.

The avian mortality at Duke's two sites isn't rare. Turbine's spinning blades kill around a half-million birds a year, and even more bats. A study published in September in the Journal of Raptor Research found that wind farms in 10 states have killed at least 85 eagles since 1997, with most deaths occurring between in the last five years. Of those birds, 79 were golden eagles that struck wind turbines. (That doesn't include the eagles killed by the decades-old turbines at California's Altamont Pass.) The raptors smash into turbines because they don't see them: When hunting, they keep their eyes on the ground, scanning for food.

Each of the mortalities is a violation of the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which could carry penalties of fines and jail time. To date, not a single wind energy facility has obtained a take (read: kill) permit, says Dalton.

Currently, there are few remedies for slashing bird deaths at existing sites. Only one option exists for making a turbine located in a high collision risk area safe: shutting it down when birds are flying nearby. One company is testing a remote-controlled system that allows operators in California stop spinning blades in Montana within 30 seconds of spotting an eagle. Other experimental measures under investigation include reducing prey near turbines and detecting and deterring birds from getting too close. 

While the Duke case may indicate that the Obama administration is finally cracking down on this prevalent environmental crime, it also underscores the importance of better siting energy projects in the first place. That approach has helped ensure that wind projects have steered clear of critical grounds for greater sage-grouse in Wyoming and golden eagles in Montana.

The wind industry is only going to continue growing, and there's clearly room for more renewables in the energy mix. And yes, cats and climate change pose bigger threats to birds than turbines. But given the risks they face, they need all they help they can get.

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