Why Permits to Kill Eagles Shouldn’t Last Three Decades

The government wants to increase the number and timeline for accidental eagle deaths—but it doesn't even know if the birds can sustain those losses.

In the push to decrease U.S. dependence on oil, wind’s often touted as a key part of the renewables equation; the most aggressive scenario forecasts that will generate 35 percent of our energy by 2035. Yet despite its promise, wind has a big problem: Turbine blades—towering hundreds of feet in the air, rotating at hundreds of miles per hour—kill birds and bats.

That’s one reason why a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposal this past May, which affects companies from wind-energy producers to mining operations, didn’t sit well with groups like the National Audubon Society. The guidance both significantly increased the allowable number of Bald Eagles killed annually and lengthened the duration of permits for doing so.

To fully grasp the issue at hand, it’s important to first understand what’s been proposed and why it matters.

Endangered animals sometimes die in the process of doing business. Companies must go out of their way to prevent such casualties, but when they do happen, they’re called incidental take. “It could be a sage-grouse being run over by a mower when a guy’s cutting hay,” says Brian Rutledge, Audubon’s vice president and Central Flyway conservation and policy advisor, “or an eagle flying into a wind turbine or an owl getting caught in a heater-treater at a methane well.”

Until now, companies with permits from the USFWS could collectively kill up to 1,100 Bald Eagles a year. The agency quadrupled that number in the recent proposal (though it assures the conservation community it’s unlikely to ever be hit). For Golden Eagles, whose populations now show the first signs of decline, the threshold was, and remains, zero. Previously, these take permits could last five years, max, but the new proposal extends them to 30. 

Brian Millsap, national raptor coordinator for the USFWS division of migratory bird management, says the longer timeframe would allow the agency to more efficiently work with and monitor companies whose operations will continue beyond that initial half-decade. For their part, companies say they feel more comfortable applying for a 30-year permit because it lays out expectations—and provides some security, both legally and financially—for long-term projects.

But it’s this extended permit length that most bothers Audubon. Though Fish and Wildlife incorporated survival and reproduction rates from eagle species assessments into its latest proposal, Rutledge says the data are still incomplete. He also says different birds have varying value for a population’s survival—most important are adult nesting females, least are sub-adult males—another factor the guidance doesn’t address. 

“Now is not the time to be granting 30-year permits,”  says Garry George, Audubon California’s renewable-energy director. “[USFWS] may be giving the industry certainty in a permit that allows them to kill eagles for 30 years, but they’re not giving us any certainty that it’s not going to send the population into a spiral.”

What Audubon wants is a stronger plan, one that incorporates scientifically proven methods to achieve what George calls “avoidance, minimization, and compensatory mitigation,” technical terminology for what essentially means assessing a project’s risk to local eagles, changing course if necessary, and coming up with solutions to decrease and offset deaths that do happen.

George says he’s optimistic the science will get to that point—but it's not there yet.

Audubon opposed a 2013 USFWS attempt at a similar permitting change, which a federal judge overturned in 2015. Now that the agency has collected the additional data the courts requested, it’s back on the table. During the current 60-day comment period, which ends July 5, Audubon plans to tap into the power of its network to make its collective voice heard.

“I’m really hopeful that we can get to a good permit at some point that actually conserves eagles,” George says. “We’re working toward that.”