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Conflicting priorities

ROLLING HILLS, WYOMING (AP) – Criminal cases brought by United States (US) wildlife officials for killing or harming protected bald and golden eagles dropped sharply in recent years, even as officials ramped up issuing permits that will allow wind energy companies to kill thousands of eagles without legal consequence.

The falloff in enforcement of eagle protection laws – which accelerated in the Trump administration and has continued under President Joe Biden – was revealed in US Fish and Wildlife Service data obtained by The Associated Press (AP).

It comes amid growing concern that a proliferation of wind turbines to feed a growing demand for renewable energy is jeopardising golden eagle populations already believed to be declining in some areas.

Dozens of permits approved or pending would allow roughly 6,000 eagles to be killed in coming decades, government documents show. Most permits are for wind farms, and more than half the killed birds would be golden eagles.

The AP’s findings – that significant numbers of eagles continue to die while fewer criminal cases are pursued – underscore a dilemma facing the Biden administration as it tries to confront climate change. Pursuing that goal through clean power development is requiring trade offs such as more dead birds from collisions with wind turbines that can tower 80 metres with blade tips spinning in excess of 240 kilometres per hour.

“They are rolling over backwards for wind companies,” said Mike Lockhart a former US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. “I think they are killing a lot more eagles than they ever anticipated.”

Companies often pledge to perform conservation work to offset the deaths. Some permits include direct payments for dead eagles – about USD30,000 per bird. Numerous permits allow the killing of bald eagles with no compensation required.

A pending proposal from the Biden administration would further streamline permits – making them automatic in some cases as they allow wind-energy projects and power line networks to harm eagles and disturb their nests.

Since retiring from the wildlife service, Lockhart has continued researching wind turbine impacts on golden eagles under a government contract in central Wyoming. Migrating golden eagles routinely soar through the sage brush flats that define the region, where hundreds of wind turbines have gone up over the past 15 years.

Turbines have killed at least six golden eagles Lockhart had previously trapped and tagged for research, including a male that bred successfully in five out of six years. The biologist said it was killed about two months after a wind farm in 2021 started operating about a mile from the nest.

Bald eagles are seen landing on a trap set by a researcher, near Medicine Bow in Wyoming, United States. PHOTO: AP


At some wind farms, companies have relocated turbines or reduced their numbers to minimise deaths. But Lockhart said turbines continue to go up in areas frequented by golden eagles, and the cumulative impacts could be disastrous for the birds. Many more turbines are planned.

In Wyoming alone, anticipated wind energy projects could kill as many as 800 to 1,000 golden eagles, a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist said during a March 28 meeting with eagle researchers, wind energy companies and government officials, according to meeting minutes.

“They’re going to more than double the (wind) capacity and in doing that, the impacts on wildlife, particularly golden eagles, are going to be exponentially going up,” Lockhart said.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they are working to avoid such a scenario by working with companies to reduce bird deaths. “We expect the final number to be much smaller,” spokesperson Vanessa Kauffman said.

There have been a small number of high-profile prosecutions of wind companies that continued killing eagles despite prior warnings from wildlife officials – including major utilities Duke Energy, PacifiCorp and NextEra Energy. Each company agreed to take steps to limit eagle deaths.

At Duke Energy’s windfarms in Wyoming, eagle deaths became more frequent after the North Carolina company reached a 2013 deal that included a USD1 million fine and shielded it from prosecution for 10 years, according to government and court records. The company said the rate has fallen since it installed a camera system that spots eagles and triggers shutdown of nearby turbines.

Eagle deaths at PacifiCorp’s wind farms continued, although at a lower rate, after it paid USD2.5 million in fines and restitution in a 2015 case, documents show. NextEra has not reported how many eagles have been killed at its wind farms since it was ordered to pay USD8 million in fines and restitution last year. PacifiCorp and NextEra did not respond to questions about their cases.

All three companies subsequently received or applied for permits that allow accidental killing of eagles without penalty, providing they took steps to minimise the number.

Wildlife officials approved such permits for more than two dozen major wind projects across the country over the past several years, sometimes over opposition from Native American tribes that revere eagles.

Despite objections from the Colorado River Indian Tribes, officials approved a permit last year for Tucson Electric Power Co, operator of 62 turbines in southern New Mexico, allowing it to kill 193 golden eagles over 30 years.

The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Minnesota says the Biden administration should not go forward with its proposal to further streamline permitting. Chairman Robert Deschampe said wildlife officials had “abandoned” protections for eagle nests and ignored tribal concerns.

Gun Lake Tribe Historic Preservation Officer Lakota Hobia said the Michigan tribe was worried about the long-term impact of more eagle nests being disturbed. “Eagles are sacred to us, and their nests need to be protected in the same ways our sacred sites and Tribal historic properties are protected,” said Hobia.

Several major environmental groups lobbied the White House with Duke energy and other utilities in support of streamlined permitting. Some environmentalists said regulating the wind industry through permits was preferable to having companies ignore or cover up eagle deaths out of fear of prosecution.

“Part of the issue is that companies have generally not been requesting permits and they’ve been taking their chances and there hasn’t been a lot of law enforcement,” said vice president of policy at the American Bird Conservancy Steve Holmer.

Under the Biden administration, he said, the wildlife service has “conflicting mandates: They are being directed to advance renewable energy and then they have obligations to preserve eagles”.

Some conservationists said the changes as proposed are too reliant on companies monitoring themselves, with not enough oversight.

“It’s sort of doomed to failure if you don’t have objective, neutral people with expertise going in and doing the monitoring,” said Eric Glitzenstein with the Center for Biological Diversity.

A camera system to detect approaching eagles is seen atop a pole at Duke Energy’s Top of the World wind farm. PHOTO: AP


Violations of the Eagle Protection Act rose during the second term of President Barack Obama, after wind farms had proliferated and an AP investigation found dozens of unprosecuted eagle deaths including at Duke Energy’s Top of the World wind farm.

Under Trump, new cases fell off sharply. At the urging of the oil and gas industry, utilities and other companies, political appointees in the Republican administration rolled back enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – which protects more than a thousand species in addition to eagles.

A Biden order reversed the rollback. However, cases continued sliding and hit their lowest level in a decade in the Democrat’s first year with 49 recorded violations, after peaking at 232 under Obama in 2014. They averaged 67 annually under Trump.