Wind power: The Fish & Wildlife Eagle Permit Rule

In the past few days, several news sources have carried stories about the developer of a proposed wind farm seeking an "incidental take permit" for golden eagles. Here are some important facts people should know about this issue, and about the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Eagle Permit Rule:

Wind power is not a major source of human-related eagle mortality. The wind turbines industry deeply regrets that eagles are killed occasionally at wind farm plants, and is doing more to analyze these impacts and find ways to reduce them than any other mortality source.

However, based on existing publicly available data, wind energy appears to be responsible for less than 1% of human-related eagle fatalities, ranking well below lead poisoning (from eating prey that has been shot by hunters), poisoning in general, illegal shooting, electrocutions on and collisions with power lines (specifically, smaller distribution lines that serve fossil fuel production areas), collisions with vehicles, and even drownings in livestock watering tanks.

As with mortality of birds and other wildlife, the wind power industry is taking even its relatively low impacts seriously and working proactively and cooperatively to find ways to further reduce them.

The eagle take permit is not a wholesale license to kill birds. Rather, the intent of the Eagle Permit Rule, established in 2009 under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, is to provide legal protection to an individual or company for the “take” of an eagle that is incidental to and not the purpose of an otherwise lawful action (in the case of wind power, providing a beneficial value to society and the environment through the production of clean energy, which in turn is expected to combat climate change – the single greatest threat to eagle and other wildlife populations).

This protection is made available under carefully controlled conditions. in order to obtain an eagle permit, a wind farm developer or owner/operator cannot simply apply for a permit, but must evaluate the proposed wind project holistically to assess the risk to eagles and then take steps through avoidance and minimization to reduce the potential for take.

If the threat of eagle mortality continues to exist after those efforts are made, the developer or operator must compensate for fatalities and ensure that eagles’ overall numbers do not decline. This is a very high standard to achieve and puts significant pressure upon wind farm owner/operators to minimize their impacts to the greatest extent practicable. Further, we view these permitting efforts as a perfect example of how the wind turbines industry is being proactive in attempting to identify and minimize impacts to wildlife as a result of development and operation of wind energy facilities. (As noted in the article, there is no legal requirement that a developer obtain a permit, if not otherwise compelled to through some other regulatory process, and thus developers may proceed at their own risk).

The wind power industry is stepping up and taking responsibility for its effect on eagles. Industry representatives have been working diligently with the Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation community to find better ways to reduce impacts on eagles.

Through the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI) and other initiatives, the industry and environmental groups have been funding research designed to better understanding eagle population size and dynamics, how eagles behave around turbines, and how to better avoid and mitigate impacts.

Most recently, AWWI sponsored a multi-stakeholder research meeting in November to identify gaps in existing knowledge about eagles and set research priorities. That meeting included representatives of the Service and groups such as Defenders of Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, and the National Audubon Society.

By John Anderson, Director of Siting Policy, American Wind Energy Association,