As one of the leading solutions to combat carbon pollution, growing wind energy is an effective way to protect America’s landscapes and wildlife. Scientists agree that climate change is the greatest threat to our nation’s plants and animals, and zero-carbon energy sources will play a critical role in ensuring these populations remain healthy and abundant.
However, recently there has been a lot of confusion about the impacts of wind power on eagle populations. Much of this stems from a misunderstanding about newly proposed changes to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Eagle Conservation and Management Program, established in 2009 under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (Eagle Act). I’m hoping I can help clear some of that up.
What the rule does
Eagles hold a revered place in our nation’s history and culture. The USFWS’s permit program will help ensure that they maintain that place for generations to come.
On May 6, 2016 USFWS issued a notice of proposed rulemaking entitled “Proposed Rule, Eagle Permits: Revisions to Regulations for Eagle Incidental Take and Take of Eagle Nests” (Proposed Rule), which revises the USFWS’s 2009 rule that established a permit program under the Eagle Act for any source of non-purposeful/incidental take of eagles and eagle nests (2009 Eagle Rule).
The initial draft of 2009 Eagle Rule was prepared under President George W. Bush’s administration. This is not a partisan issue. The Proposed Rule is intended to create a permitting framework, which is more conducive to consistent administration of the program by USFWS, while also enhancing the protection of eagles throughout their ranges, by first requiring permittees to reduce potential impacts and then offsetting the limited remaining potential impacts, so that eagle populations remain stable or increasing.
What the Proposed Rule does is nothing new, and it builds on decades of proven permitting success under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In fact, the Eagle Permit Rule arguably provides greater conservation benefits to the species, as it requires more conservation measures for getting a permit than those issued under the ESA, even though species covered under the ESA are by their very definition more imperiled than eagles.
Specifically, before USFWS grants a permit, it requires permittees to develop an Eagle Conservation Plan, which outlines required measures to reduce and avoid harming or killing eagles, and then completely offsetting any residual impacts through compensatory mitigation. Only after they approve this plan does USFWS issue a permit.
The eagle conservation program provides a path forward for maintaining stable or increasing eagle populations while also ensuring that limited unintentional take of eagles, which occurs as a result of otherwise legal activity, is assessed, permitted, reduced and mitigated.
In reality, the program reduces harm to bald and golden eagles at a national and local scale. It sets very conservative limits on allowable eagle mortality (from all sources, not just wind) to ensure healthy, sustainable populations. Moreover, as previously mentioned, the program requires mitigation to fully offset any residual impacts to eagles.
In fact, the rule mandates a net benefit for golden eagle populations, meaning in order to get a permit, the applicant must demonstrate how their efforts will show an overall increase in golden eagle numbers.
Wind facility operators want to do the right thing and get permits in order to offset any limited impacts to eagles they may have in the course of their operations. Our nation and the world needs renewable energy development to reduce the severity of climate change impacts on eagles and hundreds if not thousands of other native species.
A workable permitting framework will allow wind energy—as well as all other activities that may have impacts on eagles—to get permits and provide conservation benefits to eagles that might not otherwise occur, while also allowing wind energy to mitigate the threat that climate change poses to the species.
What the rule does not do
The Eagle Permit Rule was not created specifically for the wind industry, but rather applies to any person or industry that might unintentionally kill an eagle through the result of an otherwise lawful activity like running an energy business after first taking every step possible to avoid and minimize the threat. As USFWS Director Dan Ashe has explained:
“Contrary to published reports, proposed changes to our Eagle Conservation and Management Program do not give wind energy companies — or any other industry, organization or individual — license to kill thousands of eagles each year without consequence. The notion that we intend to permit the killing of more than 4,000 bald eagles is wrong. Period…. The truth is, thousands of eagles die every year for a variety of reasons — most from natural causes. The vast majority of human-caused deaths result from intentional poisoning and shooting — federal crimes that we aggressively investigate and prosecute. Most other eagle deaths are caused by collisions – with cars, buildings, power lines and other structures. Wind energy facilities represent a fraction of these deaths, and the media’s singular focus on wind turbines is a gross distortion of the truth.”
Simply put, the notion that the program permits the killing of more eagles is just plain wrong.
Wind energy’s impact on eagles
While some eagles are impacted at individual wind farms, this is not a common occurrence and only happens at a fraction of the wind farms nationally. Only a handful of bald eagles have ever been taken at wind farms in the U.S. Even with golden eagles it’s important to note wind power’s impacts are limited and do not affect golden eagle at a population level. However, even though impacts are very limited, they are an issue the wind industry takes seriously and works hard to address.
Further, wind energy-related impacts to golden eagles need to be considered in the context of total human-caused mortality. New data released with the draft permit rule show that human activities cause approximately 3,400 golden eagle deaths every year, of which modern wind farms are responsible for less than three percent.
Far more deaths to both species are caused by pesticide application poisoning, illegal shootings, electrocutions, vehicle strikes, lead poisoning, drowning in stock tanks, and other means.
Building on a legacy of care, the U.S. wind energy industry has proactively worked to minimize the limited impacts it does have on eagles. American wind power has a long history of partnering with regulators and conservation organizations to better understand wind’s effects, and how they can be reduced to the greatest extent practicable.
Learning from, and not repeating, past mistakes
A large percentage of wind energy’s impacts on eagles have historically occurred at a limited number of wind farms in California, which were constructed more than 30 years ago. These are some of the nation’s oldest wind installations, and were constructed long before the relationship between wind and eagles was fully understood – relying on limited siting practices and utilizing technology that created greater risk than modern wind farms built today.
The good news is that these older sites are being modernized through a process known as re-powering, where numerous smaller, more closely sited, first-generation wind turbines with faster spinning blades are replaced by modern machines, which have a lower risk profile because they are better sited, spaced further apart, and rotate at slower revolutions per minute. Experts estimate that upon completion of the repowering activities eagle fatalities will be reduced by as much as 80 percent or more at those locations.
Throughout the rest of the country, where more modern machinery and better siting practices have been utilized, impacts to individual eagles are a much rarer event.
You can learn more about one new innovative effort to detect eagles in close proximity to wind turbines, so that their operations can be curtailed before a collision occurs, below.
A legacy of care
The U.S. wind energy industry has long supported research on eagle populations and behavior in order to understand and reduce its impacts. It has adopted voluntary guidelines and siting requirements in an effort to be the best possible steward of our nation’s lands and wildlife, all while deploying a much-needed zero-carbon form of energy.
Detailed environmental impact studies are undertaken before projects are built to ensure that wildlife impacts are minimized to the greatest degree possible. Once projects are constructed, facility owner/operators typically monitor their impacts and consult with agencies on actions that can be taken should higher than anticipated impacts occur.
In reality, according to USFWS, bald eagle populations are growing. The bald eagle’s recovery from near extinction in the lower 48 states is one of the greatest achievements of the ESA, made possible by decades of hard work by the Service’s permit program under the ESA—which provides conservation benefits to species while allowing permitted activities to continue. The new Eagle Conservation rule will follow these same successful principles.
All human activities, unfortunately, have some impact on wildlife. However, the U.S. wind industry works hard to ensure that its effects are as small as possible, and as a zero-pollution energy source, wind power can help combat many of the threats the country’s eagle populations face.
The USFWS Eagle Conservation Program will play an important role in ensuring these iconic birds remain a symbol of the American spirit.
The U.S. wind industry stands ready to work with USFWS, the conservation community, and other stakeholders in designing an effective rule that will benefit eagle populations across the country, ensuring that well-sited wind energy can be deployed in rapid fashion in order to combat the greatest threat to eagles and our society – climate change.