Of Wind Power and Eagles
Navigating U.S. Federal Guidelines
Bald and Golden Eagles in the United States are protected by three main federal laws: the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (affectionately known as BGEPA or “bah GEE pah”). While both the ESA and the MBTA are important pieces of legislation that protect our raptors, BGEPA has recently taken a front seat due to its connection to the February 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) draft conservation guidance for wind energy development.
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act was originally passed in 1940 as the Bald Eagle Protection Act, to protect the Bald Eagle as our nation’s symbol. The act has been amended several times, most notably in 1978, when Golden Eagles were added.
Language within the act states that it is unlawful to “take” eagles of either species. As defined in this legislation, “take” translates to “pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb”--in other words, any action that could potentially cause injury or death, or interfere with the bird’s normal behavior (breeding, feeding, or migration). This protection extends to eagle nests, making it illegal to damage, destroy, or move an eagle nest, even if it is inactive and birds are not using it.
In recent years, increasing renewable energy demand in the U.S. has spurred incredible growth in wind, solar, and geothermal energy development. Since wind turbines in particular have the potential to harm or kill wildlife, the USFWS is in the process of developing guidelines for avoiding and minimizing this risk to eagles. In February of 2011, the Service released for public review draft voluntary wind energy guidelines simultaneously with draft eagle conservation plan guidance. These two documents are designed to complement one another, with the latter providing more specific guidance relating to eagles and wind energy development.
Wind farms can be harmful to eagles in direct and indirect ways. Direct effects are those including blade strikes, barotrauma (incidences of wind-wake turbulence caused by rotors), loss of habitat, and displacement from home range or migration corridor. Essentially, these effects are those that can have immediate, measurable consequences for birds--both physically and behaviorally. Indirect effects are delayed effects on the population, and include landscape change through invasive species, habitat fragmentation, alterations of fire regimes, increased predation pressures, loss of prey base, and decreased productivity of birds. These effects are harder to quantify, but may be no less damaging to eagle populations.
At HawkWatch International, we support the need for alternative sources of energy in an era of dwindling conventional energy resources, increasing energy demand, and climate change. The U.S. Department of Energy has established an aggressive goal of receiving 20% of our country’s electricity from wind facilities by 2030, and has provided incentives to industry to help fast-track this growth. The wind industry has consistently added 5,000–10,000 MW of capacity over the last four years and appears on pace to meet this goal.
We recognize that diversifying our energy portfolio by adding renewable resources such as wind power will help reduce the threat of climate change and reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. However, we also stress that only through proper consideration of raptors and other wildlife can we reasonably reduce the risk of unanticipated or unacceptable impacts. The Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in California, where an estimated 1,100+ raptors are killed annually, is an extreme example of what can result from inadequate pre-construction knowledge. Fast-tracking of projects must be tempered by an understanding, and to the extent possible, mitigation of the potential site-specific risk to wildlife resources, including eagles. The recently released USFWS draft documents go a long way towards providing this guidance; however we at HWI feel there are several parts that can be improved upon significantly.
Overall, we support and agree with many of the guiding principles outlined in the guidelines, specifically: early and regular industry consultation with the USFWS and other experts, consideration of eagle activity through all seasons, attention to cumulative impacts at the population level, and an adaptive management framework.
Most importantly, however, the Conservation and Science teams at HWI believe these voluntary guidelines are unlikely to be implemented in their current form, due to their length (193 pages between the two documents), poor organization (e.g., repetitive sections), and the unreasonable burden placed on industry (e.g., industry is asked to document eagle activity and prey resources in a 10-mile radius around the project site for 2–5 years pre-construction and 3 years post). We also do not agree with some of the survey and assessment methodologies proposed in the documents and will provide specific comments to USFWS detailing these.
As a science-based, non-advocacy organization (we do not lobby for or against wind development, but do advocate responsible development based on the best available science) with profound raptor expertise, we feel we can provide USFWS with a balanced yet insightful review of these documents. If you would like to lend your voice to the public comments, basic information about the USFWS and wind energy, as well as links to the draft documents and related resources, can be found on the USFWS’s wind energy website. The open public comment period on USFWS’s draft wind power guidelines runs through May 19, 2011. Our official comments have been submitted to the USFWS and are available here.