Since the 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has monitored the electrocution of hawks and eagles, whose large wing spans can easily bridge the gap between live wires on power lines (HCN, 12/7/98: Power poles make deadly perches). Though the agency has the authority to prosecute electric companies under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, it has only required them to report deaths and modify individual poles where dead birds are found.

That could all change under a new agreement reached by the Fish and Wildlife Service and Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy. The company will now develop a system-wide protection plan that could include retrofitting existing poles with safer equipment, insulating transformers, and building longer cross-arms and perches on poles, says Xcel spokesman Steve Roalstad.

Electric companies nationwide are attempting to address the problem, says USFWS law enforcement agent Leo Suazo, but Xcel, with 90,000 miles of line in 12 Western and Midwestern states, is the first to "step up to the bat in a pro-active manner." There's no word on when Xcel's protection program will be implemented, but Suazo says his agency is currently negotiating comprehensive plans with several other utility companies nationwide.