BILLINGS, Montana (AP) — The Biden administration on Thursday proposed a new permitting program for wind turbines, power lines and other eagle-killing projects, amid growing concern among scientists that the rapid expansion renewable energy in the western United States does not harm gold eagle populations are now in decline.
The Fish and Wildlife Service program announced Thursday aims to encourage businesses to work with authorities to minimize harm to golden and bald eagles.
It also aims to avoid any slowdown in the growth of wind power as an alternative to carbon-emitting fossil fuels – a key part of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda. This comes after several large utilities have been sued federally in recent years for killing large numbers of eagles without permits.
The federal government already issues permits to kill eagles. But Thursday’s proposal calls for new permits tailored to wind power projects, power line networks and the disruption of breeding bald eagles and bald eagle nests.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams said the new program would provide “multiple avenues for obtaining a permit” while helping to conserve eagles, which she described as a key responsibility for the agency.
The number of bald eagles has quadrupled since 2009 to around 350,000 birds. There are only around 40,000 golden eagles, which need much larger areas to survive and are more prone to having problems with humans.
The number of wind turbines nationwide has more than doubled in the past decade to nearly 72,000, according to US Geological Survey data, with development overlapping golden eagle prime territory in States like Wyoming, Montana, California, Washington and Oregon.
In April, a subsidiary of Florida-based utility industry giant NextEra Energy pleaded guilty in federal court in Wyoming to criminal violations of wildlife laws after its wind turbines killed more than 100 eagles. royals in eight states. It was the third conviction of a major wind company for killing eagles in a decade.
Federal officials will not release the number of eagles killed by wind farms, saying it is sensitive law enforcement information.
Across the country, 34 permits in place last year allowed companies to ‘take’ 170 golden eagles – meaning many birds could be killed by turbines or lost due to impacts on nests or l habitat, according to permit data obtained by The Associated Press. More than 200 permits were in place to allow the culling of 420 bald eagles, the data showed.
For every loss, companies are required to ensure that at least one eagle fatality is prevented elsewhere.
Unlawful shootings are the leading cause of death among golden eagles, killing about 700 people a year, according to federal estimates. More than 600 people die each year in collisions with cars, wind turbines and power lines; about 500 a year are electrocuted; and more than 400 are poisoned.
Yet climate change looms as a potentially bigger threat: Rising temperatures are expected to shrink golden eagle breeding grounds by more than 40% later this century, according to an analysis by the National Audubon Society.
“Birds tell us that climate change is the biggest threat they face,” said Garry George, director of the National Audubon Society’s Clean Energy Initiative. If executed responsibly, he said the new scheme could bolster protection for eagles as renewable energy develops.