Wind energy and transmission is key to reducing carbon pollution and protecting the North American bird species that are vulnerable to climate impacts. Golden Eagles, for example, are projected by Audubon science to lose more than 40 percent of their current range under a rise of 3°C in average global temperatures. Now, changes to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) incidental take permitting process under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act will help avoid and minimize conflicts between eagles and wind energy projects across the U.S.
The rule announced today establishes a new general permit for wind energy and transmission projects that exhibit a demonstrably low risk to eagles. As part of the permit program, clean energy developers will commit to conservation measures and monitoring at their wind project and transmission sites, and the FWS will set the maximum number of eagles and eagle nests that might be harmed by wind energy and transmission without prosecution under the federal law. Audubon has been advocating for improvements to clean energy permitting alongside conservation and industry partners to make the process more efficient so that FWS can work with developers to advance wind energy development while protecting birds.
Incidental take permits require operators to reduce risks to birds through the mitigation hierarchy of avoid first, minimize second and provide compensatory mitigation to offset impacts after avoidance and minimization. And by limiting and offsetting any loss of bird life up to a certain number of individuals, based on a risk analysis and reported estimated impacts. Population numbers and other data from wind projects and transmission are key for FWS to monitor populations, but currently only a small percentage of wind projects are participating in the permit program and providing this data and conservation measures. More importantly, permits that require conservation measures provide benefits to birds whether or not any harm actually occurs. Those measures could include installing detection and curtailment technology, monitoring for harm to eagles or funding for research that develops data that helps understand how to protect eagles or increase populations from other threats like lead poisoning and collision with vehicles, and how to protect eagles from collision and electrocution at electrical lines.
The FWS first established a voluntary Incidental Take Permit for the “take” of Bald and Golden Eagles at wind projects in 2009. Unfortunately, only 100 of the 2,000 or so wind projects in the U.S. have applied since then, and many projects have waited more than 10 years to receive their final permit. Many project operators reported that their turbines were too low risk to go through the expense of a permit application and therefore are not initiating FWS-recommended conservation measures or reporting data on eagles.
Audubon has advocated for greater participation by the wind and transmission industries in the FWS permit program since 2009. We hope that the industry will join the FWS permit program with the release of this final rule that will benefit conservation of eagles. Audubon will continue to work with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the industry and our conservation partners on the details and implementation of the permits over the next few years.
Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles are majestic birds with cultural significance for many in the U.S. With thoughtful management, we can make sure that that future generations of bird-lovers see them flying overhead. As the new incidental take permitting is implemented, Audubon will continue to advocate for clean energy and transmission that is responsibly sited and operated in ways that avoid, minimize, and mitigate negative impacts on birds and the places they need, now and in the future.