Eagles May be Latest Casualty of Renewables Policy

Smog obscures the view from Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: Len Blumin /Flickr/Creative Commons License

As concern grows over the toll industrial wind turbines take on California's largest birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) wants to extend the life of "take" permits for bald and golden eagles to 30 years from the current five-year maximum. "Take permits" are permits to disturb, injure, or kill the species in question; the extension is intended specifically to make it easier to establish large wind farms in eagle habitat. FWS is accepting comments on the proposed rule change until July 12.

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Eagles are especially vulnerable to injury by wind turbines due to their habits. The birds hunt as they soar, training their legendarily acute eyes on the ground below. If a wind turbine blade approaches them from above, they will be unlikely to see it. Modern large wind turbine blades are as much as 185 feet long. A moderate rate of spin can mean the blade tip travels at speeds in excess of 150 mph; a fatal blow for unwary birds.

FWS usually issues take permits for species listed as Endangered or Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The bald eagle was delisted in 2007, and the golden never made it onto the ESA list. However, since 2009 FWS has been authorized to issue take permits for eagles under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The agency received its first wind-related application for an eagle take permit earlier this year.

Wind developers have complained that the current five-year maximum permit length interferes with their ability to plan industrial-scale turbine installations, which will likely stay in operation for decades. (The Altamont Pass wind installation has been in continuous operation since the mid-1970s, and the San Gorgonio Pass turbines since the early 1980s.) Energy companies apparently feared they'd have trouble renewing five-year take permits, or that bird kills in the interim would prompt FWS to tighten restrictions on operation in the subsequent years.

If that's the case, then the fear is almost certainly unwarranted. Altamont Pass wind turbines kill an average of 67 eagles a year. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times noted eight eagles killed by the LADWP's much smaller Pine Tree wind turbine center in just the last two years -- a much smaller number, but three times as many eagles per turbine. Altamont and Pine Tree are exceptionally poorly sited, occupying major raptor migration paths. But even outside those paths, turbines pose a threat to eagles. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that throughout the West, four raptors die a year for every 100 megawatts of wind turbine generating capacity. Around a third of those deaths will be eagles. Predictably enough, this rule of thumb has been criticized as optimistic. Hard figures on actual eagle deaths at wind installations are difficult to find, but given the example of Altamont it seems certain that turbines nationwide kill hundreds of eagles a year.

And yet, despite the fact that killing eagles is a violation of law punishable by fines and jail time, not one wind turbine operator has been legally sanctioned.

Outside pressure on FWS may well play a role in the policy change. When the new take permit regulations were being drawn up in 2009, the maximum length of a permit -- "permit tenure" -- was extended from 90 days to five years. As the California desert-based neighborhood association Homestead Valley Community Council noted in their comments on the new proposed rule change, FWS was adamant at the time that permit tenure be limited to five years. As FWS said,

"the rule limits permit tenure to five years or less because factors may change over a longer period of time such that a take authorized much earlier would later be incompatible with the preservation of the bald eagle or the golden eagle. Accordingly, we believe that five years is a long enough period within which a project proponent can identify when the proposed activity will result in take."

Since 2009, the Department of the Interior has ridden its subsidiary agencies (including FWS) with an iron hand when it comes to the issue of industrial renewable energy development. The BLM has essentially had its charter rewritten to become a land leasing agency, and National Park Service employees have been told their jobs are on the line if they make comments about industrial solar and wind facilities on Park boundaries. It's not hard to imagine that FWS had its mind changed on eagle take permit tenure under similar pressure from Interior. Not that FWS says any such thing in the current proposal for new permit rules. The official explanation, according to FWS?

Since publication of the 2009 final rule, it became evident that the 5-year term limit on permits did not correspond to the timeframe of projects operating over the long-term and was insufficient to enable project proponents to secure the funding, lease agreements, and other necessary assurances to move forward with projects.

In order for applicants to qualify for the 30-year take permits, they must agree to engage in what FWS calls "adaptive management measures" to protect local eagles. Just what those measures are is left rather vague. The first application for the five-year permit does include adaptive management measures, but they're pretty much limited to painting stripes on windmill blades to increase visibility and turning the turbines off for those parts of the year in which eagles are most likely to be present. The just-approved Ocotillo Express Wind Facility in Imperial County plans to employ a biologist to watch, fire tower style, for approaching eagles; when he or she spots one, a signal will be sent to shut the turbines down. The shutdown process can take up to a minute before the blades are motionless: as eagles can comfortably cruise at 60 mph or faster, an eagle more than a mile away when identified might not give the biologist enough time to shut things down. Observation like this is often cited as a possible adaptive management measure, as is "bird-finding radar."

Sadly, the "adaptive management" measure most likely to be employed in actual practice is the time-honored Western practice of "shoot, shovel and shut up," disposing of the injured or killed creature on the QT and failing to report it to the appropriate authorities. There are persistent rumors among neighbors of the San Gorgonio Pass wind installation that this particular management procedure accounts for the very low official bird kill at that facility.

If you want to comment on the proposed eagle take permit regulations, you can do so online or by mailing hard copy to:
Public Comments Processing, Attention: FWS-R9-MB-2011-0054;
Division of Policy and Directives Management;
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service;
4401 North Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM;
Arlington, VA 22203-1610.

The deadline is midnight on July 12, 2012.

[Author's note: When first published, this piece wrongly cited the BLM's mortality estimate as four eagles per 100 megawatts of wind capacity. I regret the error, which has been corrected.]

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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