In exchange for the right to kill eagles, a San Diego-based wind developer offered to retrofit 75 power poles to reduce eagle deaths near California's Lake San Antonio, prime winter habitat for the iconic birds.
Another California developer agreed to upgrade 11 "problem" power poles, idle certain wind turbines and donate $20,000 for eagle conservation.
The Obama administration argues steps like those will keep eagle populations robust, even as it issues permits of up to 30 years for wind farms to kill them.
"There's no doubt it will be better for eagles," said Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which earlier this month finalized a rule allowing developers to obtain eagle "take" permits for up to 30 years instead of five (Greenwire, Dec. 6).
But some environmental groups are screeching mad, arguing Fish and Wildlife lacks the knowledge or the funding to ensure plans to offset eagle deaths in exchange for the permits are effective.
"It's an eagle-killing rule they let out the door before it was ready," said Mike Daulton, vice president for government relations for the National Audubon Society, which has threatened to challenge the rule.
The conflict has tested the Obama administration's ability to expand renewable wind without harming protected wildlife -- straining its relationship with green allies in the process.
The jury is out on whether the 30-year eagle rule will help or harm the nation's official bird and its golden kin.
Ashe said eagle permits will increase transparency and accountability and require developers to commit to conservation and monitoring that wouldn't otherwise occur. While killing bald and golden eagles is illegal under multiple federal laws, developers are under no obligation to obtain a take permit.
"Every time you see a wind facility, it's unpermitted," Ashe said in an interview. "We're getting nothing in exchange."
In addition to retrofitting power poles -- the leading source of eagle mortality, according to Fish and Wildlife -- one company building a wind farm on public lands in Arizona has proposed removing roadkill from highways to reduce the incidence of eagles being struck and killed by cars.
According to Ashe, companies have also proposed:
- Funding programs that allow hunters to trade in lead bullets for copper. Like endangered California condors, eagles can be poisoned when they ingest lead ammunition form the guts of deer or elk killed using lead bullets.
- Removing habitat features like rock piles that harbor prey that attract eagles to wind farms.
- Retiring problem turbines at older wind farms such as at Altamont Pass in California, where up to 80 eagles are killed annually.
Under the eagle rule, permits can be rescinded if a project cannot comply with the agency's standard of maintaining "stable or increasing" breeding populations of eagles.
And 30-year take permits would be nothing new for bald eagles, Ashe said.
Before the birds were removed from the endangered species list in 2007, Fish and Wildlife regularly issued habitat conservation plans that allowed eagle takes to occur for up to 50 years, he said.
"It's controversial because a couple of environmental groups have decided that it's controversial," Ashe said.
No environmental groups have endorsed the rule, but some are reserving judgment.
"While the Fish and Wildlife Service has worked hard to create a more transparent and consistent permitting program, the devil is in the details, and relying heavily on adaptive management is risky," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife and a director of Fish and Wildlife during the Clinton administration. "The opportunity for long-term permits is clearly a win for developers, but only time will tell if it will also be a sustainable win for eagles."
Groups like Defenders "are cautious and skeptical, and we should be," Ashe said. "But they're willing to listen," he added. "They're willing to take us at our word, and they're going to hold us to it."
Groups including Audubon, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the American Bird Conservancy say the agency has failed to make its case.
"Let's be clear, this move is all about trying to make the numbers for the rollout of renewable energy sources laid out in the president's Climate Action Plan," Audubon President David Yarnold said in a recent op-ed in Politico, referring to Obama's goal to double renewable electricity generation on public lands by 2020.
"The burden of protecting America's eagles now falls on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency that's dealing with steep budget cuts and, in the process, allowing more dead eagles," he said.
According to Audubon, Interior refused to endorse a plan agreed to by conservationists and the wind industry to craft more detailed regional plans that would more clearly specify what level of eagle deaths is acceptable.
Fish and Wildlife's argument that its eagle rule will allow "no net loss" of the species is spurious on two accounts, said Audubon's Daulton.
First, the agency in the past has told Audubon it doesn't have the resources to conduct the five-year reviews called for in the 30-year permits. In addition, aside from power pole retrofits, no other eagle conservation steps have been proved by scientists or approved by Fish and Wildlife, he said.
"Now we get to have a science experiment," Daulton said. "They're locking in unproven mitigation and an unproven permitting regime for 30 years."
Moreover, Fish and Wildlife already has authority to force the owners of power poles to upgrade them, so it cannot argue those steps would not otherwise occur without eagle permits, Daulton said.
Some would disagree, arguing that birds are killed illegally every day and the Obama administration has finite legal and political capital to prosecute every offense.
Wind farms are far from the leading bird killers.
While peer-reviewed research suggests wind farms kill upward of half a million birds annually, one study said power lines kill hundreds of thousands to 175 million birds annually. Buildings kill up to about five times more than the upper end of that estimate.
A recent study by Fish and Wildlife scientists confirmed wind farms have killed at least 85 eagles in nearly a dozen states over the past 15 years, though the actual figure is likely substantially higher (E&ENews PM, Sept. 11).
Roughly a dozen wind farms have applied for eagle take permits of varying durations, said David Cottingham, a senior adviser at Fish and Wildlife.
More companies are expected to apply for the permits after the Justice Department last month announced the first-ever criminal enforcement of bird protection laws at a wind energy facility, fining a North Carolina-based energy giant $1 million for killing more than 150 migratory birds, including 14 golden eagles, at two Wyoming wind farms over the past few years (Greenwire, Nov. 25).
Wind developers say they need 30-year permits to prove to financiers that projects will not be shut down prematurely.
"The bankers now fully understand this," Cottingham said. "They want the companies to have coverage."
Fish and Wildlife has already issued a five-year eagle take permit to the developer of a power line that crosses the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area along the Delaware-Pennsylvania border.
Tom Vinson, senior director of federal regulatory affairs at the American Wind Energy Association, said the 30-year rule benefits industry and eagles.
"Because you would have full impact analysis for 30 years, you'd be mitigating for 30 years," he said. "You'd be committing to a variety of conservation practices including upfront mitigation such that it provides a net conservation benefit."
AWEA said studies show that eagle populations over the last 40 years have stabilized and that the wind power industry conducts more pre- and post-construction studies to guard against impacts to birds and bats than any other energy sector.
Still, environmental groups will watch Fish and Wildlife's new permitting regime closely.
"There are a lot of unknowns still," said one environmentalist who asked not to be named. "This is something that is going to require a lot of vigilance."
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