Long lines of large, tall wind turbines are cropping up on range lands and pastures throughout America, changing the appearance of agriculture landscapes as the United States places more emphasis on renewable energy and less reliance on foreign oil imports.
Environmentalists who support harnessing wind currents to generate electricity are finding that those massive turbines whose long blades churn the air also are killing many golden and bald eagles that fly into them or get caught in rotors. The conservationists are torn between supporting the wind energy industry and preserving the lives of those eagles.
Wind turbine blades can reach speeds of up to 170 miles per hour at their tips, creating tornado-like vortexes.
Estimates of birds killed annually by wind turbines range from 10,000 to more than 500,000, but the American Wind Energy Association says eagles account for only a tiny fraction of those deaths. It says less than 2 percent of annual golden eagle deaths from human causes are because of wind turbines, and fewer than six bald eagles have been killed by wind turbines.
According to federal biologists, wind farms in 10 states have killed at least 85 eagles since 1997, with 79 of them being golden eagles that struck wind turbines. One eagle was electrocuted by a power line. Most of the deaths occurred between 2008 and 2012, as the industry was ramping up.
Last December, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a final regulation that allows wind energy companies to obtain 30-year permits allowing them to lawfully kill eagles without prosecution by the federal government. On June 19, the American Bird Conservancy filed suit against the Interior Department, charging it with multiple violations of federal law by introducing the regulation.
In its April 30 notice of intent to sue, sent to Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the conservancy argued that the federal entities violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and other statutes by not prosecuting eagle deaths to the fullest extent of the law in favor of “unconstrained wind energy.”
Michael Hutchins, the conservancy’s national coordinator for its bird smart wind energy program, said giving wind energy companies a 30-year pass to legally kill eagles without knowing the impact on their populations is a “reckless and irresponsible gamble that millions of Americans are unwilling to take.”
A previous regulation, adopted in 2009, provided for a maximum duration of five years for each permit to kill eagles. Conceding that bird mortality is inevitable, Hutchins said: “In the government’s rush to expand wind energy, shortcuts were taken in implementing this rule that should not have been allowed.”
The bald eagle’s recovery has been a success story for the Fish & Wildlife Service, Hutchins said. It was delisted as an endangered species in 2007 due to that recovery. The golden eagle also is not listed as endangered, but both birds still have federal wildlife protections. It is still illegal to kill or hunt them without proper permits.
In 2009, 22,000 wind turbines were operating in the United States. By 2030, wind energy is expected to impact nearly 20,000 square miles of terrestrial habitat and more than 4,000 square miles of marine habitat crucial to threatened and other protected species.
As of the end of 2013, wind power capacity in the U.S. was 61,108 megawatts (MW) or 4.25 percent of all generated electricity. Sixteen states have installed more than 1,000 MW of wind capacity with Michigan breaking the mark in 2013’s fourth quarter.
Texas, with 12,355 MW of capacity, has the most installed wind power capacity of any U.S. state, followed by California and Iowa with 5,830 MW and 5,178 MW, respectively. Illinois and Oregon rank fourth and fifth.
The top five states in terms of wind generation percentages in 2013 were Iowa (27.4 percent), South Dakota (26 percent), Kansas (19.4 percent), Idaho (16.2 percent) and Minnesota (15.7 percent).
Conservancy President George Fenwick said the Obama Administration ignored the conservancy’s entreaties that the 30-year permit limit be slowed rather than rush into enacting it. “If government agencies are allowed to ignore their own rules, we have a dangerous precedent that should be of great concern to anyone who cares about wildlife in this country,” Fenwick said.
The National Audubon Society was among groups involved in months of negotiations on the rule. David Yarnold, President and Chief Executive, was not pleased with the outcome.
Conservation groups said Fish & Wildlife needlessly rejected an agreement to develop more detailed regional plans that would set firm, research-based limits on how many eagles could be killed in a particular geographic area. Fish & Wildlife counters that ensuring eagle populations are preserved is a central focus of the new regulation.
“A 30-year permit is like a blank check. It basically says you can go operate these wind turbines and kill as many eagles as happen to die,” Yarnold said. “We put a historic deal on the table, and they didn’t have the vision to say yes. Eagles are migratory birds. Having a regional plan that reflects how they live and where they travel just makes sense.”
Last November, in the first case of its kind, Duke Energy agreed to pay $1 million in fines after a subsidiary pleaded guilty in a Wyoming federal court to violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Duke was charged with killing dozens of birds since 2009, including 14 golden eagles, at two Wyoming wind farms.
Wind farms in Wyoming and California were responsible for 58 eagle deaths in the past 17 years followed by wind farms in Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Utah, Texas, Maryland and Iowa.
The Shiloh IV Wind Project LLC, a California wind farm 60 miles east of San Francisco, is the first in the nation to avoid prosecution if eagles are injured or die when they fly into giant turning blades. In June, Fish & Wildlife said Shiloh will receive a special permit allowing up to five golden eagles to be accidentally killed over five years. The company must retrofit 133 power poles to prevent eagle injuries and deaths from electrocution. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent