Controversial Rule Pits Environmental Community Against Wind Industry

The environmental community strongly supports the wind industry, but a rule approved by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) this week is putting a wedge between these important allies.

Under FWS’s revised "eagle-taking rule," non-purposeful taking of eagles" is allowed if wind farms implement "advanced conservation practices."

“You have to document all the different ways you’ll preserve eagles, and you’ll be checked every five years. Even then, if more eagles are dying than you expected, you have to do more things or lose your permit,” Peter Kelley of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) told the Los Angeles Times. And fatalities of golden eagles  are tiny, says AWEA at less than 2% of all documented sources of human-caused eagle deaths.

But is the wind industry reporting injuries and deaths of eagles?

Eagle Golden

Until now, wind developers could voluntarily apply for a five-year permit, but few, if any, have bothered to. As a result of this lax  industry response, just last month – the Department of Justice announced its first-ever criminal conviction of a wind developer for killing birds. Found guilty of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Duke Energy settled and is paying a $1 million fine.

But AWEA, which lobbied for the 30-year permit, believes the industry needs this level of certainty both to invest in wind farms and in long-term ways to protect raptors. Unfortunately, these practices are voluntary, not mandatory, which makes all the difference.  


study by top scientists says the number [of birds being destroyed] will
escalate dramatically if we continue to do what we have been doing. The biggest
impediment to reducing those impacts continues to be wind industry siting and
operating guidelines that are only followed on a voluntary basis. No other
energy industry gets to pick and choose where they put their facilities and
decide how they are going to operate in a manner unconstrained by federal
regulation,” says George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy


FWS says a 5-year permit is impractical for wind farms
that operate for decades. 
In early 2012, the FWS published voluntary operating and siting guidelines
for the wind industry
, and this year, they released Eagle Conservation
Plan Guidance. These guidelines would be much more effective at preventing
bird deaths if they were mandatory, with project permits used
to cover costs, says ABC.

Because guidelines are voluntary, "companies have been able to pay
lip service to bird protection laws and then largely do what they want. Poorly
sited wind projects exist or are being planned that clearly ignore the advice
of federal and state biologists who have few, if any, means of preventing them
from going ahead," says Dr. Michael Hutchins, who coordinates
the National Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign for ABC.   

Wind farms shouldn’t be allowed in bird migration corridors and in sensitive habitats where endangered birds and bats are present, they say. 


Interior Department has "cut legal corners and disregarded public comments
in crafting this rule, which is little more than a regulatory subsidy to the
wind industry. We will be reviewing all available legal options to ensure that
eagles do not suffer needless death and maiming from this ill-advised and
scientifically bankrupt weakening of eagle safeguards," says attorney Eric
Glitzenstein on behalf of ABC.   

AWEA points out that the permit isn’t only for the wind industry, but for "all sources of human-caused eagle mortality," such as oil and gas exploration and production, mining, military bases, airports, cell towers,utility lines, and even the solar industry."

Annual bird deaths have risen from 440,000 in 2009 to 600,000 in 2012 with the growth of the US wind industry, says ABC. They expect that number to rise to 1
.4 million a year by 2030, as the industry’s expansion continues. Accurate statistics aren’t available on how many endangered eagles are killed.

Several tools are available to help wind developers choose the best sites
based on wind and environmental concerns, including one developed by National Renewable Energy Lab
and another by ABC.

One wind farm – the biggest in Montana – is showing leadership on protecting raptors. It worked with Audubon to optimize siting and employs human observers and radar tracking cameras to prevent accidents.

Read AWEA’s take on this

Here are the most promising options for reducing bird and bat mortality:

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