New Rule Is a Win for Wind, Blows for Eagles

The government will grant permits allowing the industry to harm or kill the raptors for 30 years.

Eagle conservation just suffered a significant blow. Under a revised rule published today, the Interior Department will grant wind projects 30-year permits to harm or kill bald and golden eagles—as long as they take steps to protect the raptors, the rule says.

The rule extends, from five years to three decades, the maximum period of eagle "take" permits. That covers everything from incidentally disturbing the birds to killing them. Permit holders are exempt from prosecution under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which carries penalties of fines and jail time. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will review the operations every five years to ensure that they aren't "taking" more birds than their permit allows.

Yet the approach relies on wind projects to self-report fatalities. Some will play by the rules, but it's hard to imagine that at least some won't prioritize the bottom line over bird conservation.

"Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check," says Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold. He hinted that Audubon, which supports bird-friendly wind, might take legal action if the rule isn't revised. "We have no choice but to challenge this decision, and all options are on the table."

FWS says that the extension is crucial because wind projects have decades-long lifespans, but conservation groups maintain that scientists don't know enough about the fast-growing industry's effects on eagles. "On top of the impacts from the duration of take permits being extended six-fold, the birds will soon face an additional serious threat—a 12-fold increase in wind energy, if federal 2030 targets are achieved," George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy, said in a statement. "So it's conceivable, and probably even quite likely, that mortality impacts to eagles will get far worse.

It might seem odd that birds renowned for their keen eyesight are smashing into 400-foot-high turbines with 150-foot-long blades. But they haven't evolved to look up: When hunting, they keep their eyes on the ground, scanning for food.

Wind farms in 10 states have killed at least 85 eagles since 1997, with most deaths occurring in the last five years as the industry has experienced rapid growth, a study published in September in the Journal of Raptor Research found. Most deaths, 79, were golden eagles that struck turbines.  (That doesn't include the 60 or so eagles killed each year at the decades-old turbines at California's Altamont Pass.) Each of the mortalities recorded is a violation of the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

While the Interior Department has received more than a dozen applications from wind companies for eagle take permits, it hasn't granted any to the industry since the program began in 2009—they were likely put on hold until the rule change was finished. (Duke Energy, the first wind company convicted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of killing protected birds, agreed last month to apply for permits as part of its $1 million settlement; two of its Wyoming wind projects killed a total of 14 golden eagles and 149 other birds.)

Under the revised rule, if a project continues to harm or kill eagles, even after taking mitigation efforts, the Interior Department will work with wind companies and other groups to create and put in place "advanced conservation practices." But, as the 87-page document states, the government hasn't identified any such practices.

And given budget cuts, those in the environmental community question whether the agency will be able to develop those practices or police wind farms for their five-year reviews. "This is just smoke," says Mike Daulton, Audubon's vice president of government relations. "They are locking permits in for 30 years even though they don't have a single, approved advanced conservation practice in place, and little or no ability to monitor projects."

Audubon believes wind energy will play an important role in moving the country beyond fossil fuels, says Yarnold (click here to read Audubon's position on wind). "It is possible for wind farms and birds to co-exist more peacefully," he says, pointing to newer technology and siting practices that could pose less risk to birds. "Sadly, if Interior's plan goes forward, that will not be the case."