When a golden eagle was killed at the 66-turbine Spring Valley Wind Farm near Ely, Nevada, in February, wind farm operator Pattern Energy reportedly was prompt in notifying authorities of the death and already had mitigation measures in place to protect birds and bats.
Regardless, Pattern now faces a $200,000 fine over the incident because the wind facility, which began operating in August last year, does not have a “take permit.” Take permits, which are issued through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, allow for a certain number of incidental deaths of endangered or threatened wildlife species if the permit holder submits a conservation plan that documents measures to protect potentially affected species.
Garry George, renewable energy director of Audubon California, which is a National Audubon Society state program, answered our questions via email about golden eagles and the Spring Valley incident.
Tell us about golden eagles. What is their status in the U.S. today, and why are they important?
Golden eagles are one of North America’s most majestic and powerful raptors, with a wingspan of six and a half feet. Eagles play an important role in Native American culture and rituals and in the minds and hearts of all Americans.
But eagle experts tell us that golden eagle populations are declining throughout their range in the contiguous United States from threats including loss of nesting and foraging habitat to energy, housing and other development; lead poisoning from eating carcasses that contain fragments from lead ammunition; and collisions with cars, power lines and wind turbines. Our goal at Audubon is to conserve golden eagles by reducing as many of these threats as we can.
Eagles are a very visible measurement of the health of a very large ecosystem. You will not see them soaring over cities or large developments. They need lots of space. They are also an “umbrella species,” which means that if eagles are conserved, many other species benefit from that conservation.
Golden eagles are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, which was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
What do we know about wind farms and the danger they may or may not pose to golden eagles? Do eagles have any characteristics that require special measures or considerations for wind farms, beyond those that would be taken for other birds?
Eagles are particularly vulnerable to wind turbine collision because of their flight behavior. They soar along ridges and in winds that can also attract wind developments. They tend to fly at the altitude of the turbine rotor-swept area, especially when they are hunting. And when they are hunting, their senses are focused on the ground looking for prey, not watching for spinning blades.
The impact of wind farms on golden eagles became startlingly clear in 2004, when the California Energy Commission conducted a mortality study at Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area’s 5,400 turbines. Estimates of golden eagles killed at the Wind Resource Area are an average of 67 or more per year, along with thousands of other raptors and other birds.
So, when the permits at Altamont came up for renewal, our Audubon chapters in the Bay Area stepped up for the eagles and appealed against the renewal of the permits to operate the wind turbines. This action resulted in a settlement with Alameda County and NextEra Energy and other developers to shut off the turbines during key eagle migration periods, and to replace the older turbines with fewer, larger turbines. Recent studies show that this has resulted in a 50 percent decline in eagle mortality at Altamont Pass. (See related post: “Notorious Altamont Wind Area Becomes Safer for Birds.”)
Altamont is an extreme example, but now we find eagles being killed at other wind projects, especially in the West. (See related post: “Montana Wind Turbines Give Way to Raptors.”)
Take permits are an important tool for protecting eagles and other birds because wind developers would be required to build avoidance, minimization, mitigation and other conservation measures into their development plans to ensure that their activities would not result in a decline in eagle populations. Take permits encourage the development of safer wind development projects; the alternative is that developers might design projects that kill more birds, leaving developers liable to prosecution and heavy fines.
The Spring Valley Wind Farm now faces a potential fine of $200,000 for the eagle death. What should the role of fines be in preventing and managing bird deaths from wind farms, and how should such fines be set?
The possibility of large fines and the possibility of prosecution for violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act should encourage wind developers to focus on the conservation of eagles and other birds and to work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in planning their projects. Every effort should be made by the wind industry to avoid impacts to eagles and other birds, even to the extent of abandoning a project because it is too risky. Every effort should be made by the wind industry to voluntarily invest in the latest science and technology to site turbines appropriately, detect eagles and other birds, and even curtail turbines to avoid collisions. These efforts to conserve eagles need to be a wise investment compared to fines and prosecution.
What can we be doing differently to help protect birds while allowing for the development of renewable energy sources like wind?
Technology is one path forward. There are new turbines being tested now that may be much safer for birds, and new kinds of detection and avoidance technologies can shut down turbines temporarily during specific seasons or weather events or when large birds like golden eagles and California condors are detected nearby.
Another path forward is through better siting of wind projects in areas that are already disturbed and are not as useful for birds. These areas could be planned by local, state and federal as wind energy development zones that offer incentives to developers such as expedited permitting. Large-scale planning for conservation of birds and other wildlife at the same time as planning for renewable energy by state, federal and local agencies is another strategy being developed in California in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.
The Department of the Interior last year released guidelines for siting wind developments in ways that minimize harm to eagles and other wildlife, and we wholeheartedly encourage wind developers to follow these guidelines.
Wind energy is an important component in reducing the impacts of climate change, one of the greatest threats in our lifetime to birds and people alike. But wind energy must be developed and produced in ways that keep golden eagles, and other birds and wildlife, safe.