Can the feds save birds by allowing more to be killed?

Fish and Wildlife Service hopes proposal will entice energy developers to obtain permits for eagle deaths.


When the renewable energy industry isn’t being touted as the new frontier of power needs, it's being criticized for purportedly killing flying critters with swinging wind turbine blades, glistening solar panels or high-voltage transmission lines. 

Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to fix that problem, but in a way that may seem counterintuitive. The agency released a proposed revision to their eagle management strategies on May 6. But instead of putting stricter rules in place, it's doing the opposite. The new rule would increase developer permit lengths significantly, from 5 years to 30 years, and allow permit holders to collectively kill a total of 4,200 bald eagles per year — nearly four times the current limit.

That may sound crazy, but it's really the existing system that is skewed, not the proposed changes.

Currently, if a developer wants to build a wind farm or solar plant, she may apply for an eagle kill permit that requires her to abide by a conservation plan, but also shields her from fines or legal action for killing eagles. But here's the catch: The permit is not required, and because its requirements are expensive and somewhat burdensome, very few developers are opting to apply — currently only one California wind farm holds a permit. Those that choose not to get a permit risk being fined for bird kills under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, but they are rarely caught and even more rarely prosecuted. “Bird mortality is already happening,” says Brad Bortner, Fish and Wildlife Service chief in the Division of Migratory Bird Management. “But we don’t have frameworks to hold companies accountable for how many die each year.”

The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) releases a bald eagle during research at the National Wind Technology Center, near Boulder, Colorado. The research is working to help the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory develop a system that prevents bird strikes with wind turbines.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder and John de la Rosa / NREL

The service says the new, more relaxed terms will entice more developers — primarily those in the energy sector, including wind, solar and companies with power lines that have the potential for killing eagles — to apply for the permits. 

The change is meant, in part, to help quantify the number of birds killed by the permitted facilities, thereby giving the Fish and Wildlife Service a better handle on how to manage bald and golden eagle fatalities. “The 30-year periods will give us a longer timeframe to establish consistency and collect reliable data about exactly how many eagle deaths there are,” Bortner says.

The proposed rule would work similarly to the Clean Air Act. Industry polluters would apply for permits that put limits on acceptable emissions per year. In this case, a wind or solar facility, for example, would assess approximately how many eagles per year their operations kill and apply for a $36,000 voluntary permit with the Fish and Wildlife Service to keep the number at a rate acceptable to maintain local populations. “By holding a permit, facilities would avoid fines for the birds they do kill,” says Eliza Savage, manager of the service’s eagle program. Facilities that don’t opt for a permit would be on the hook for fines for eagle fatalities each year (a provision that is already in place).

What’s more, bald eagle populations have rebounded. “Now we’re updating the science and realizing that the (bald eagle) population is in a better biological place,” Bortner says. Thus, the increase in the number of kills that are tolerable. On the flip side, golden eagle populations are in decline. Under the new rule, golden eagles will have stronger protections: The kill limit for the struggling population is zero, down from 28 annually.

“This doesn’t increase or decrease eagle deaths, but it gets them in the system. Once we have a regulatory body in place to monitor this, we can work with developers to limit eagle deaths,” Savage says. Whether the proposed rule will play out like this in practice, no one knows. Conservation groups that High Country News contacted for comment for this story were still thumbing through the more than 300-page proposal and impact statement.

Some renewable energy plants have worked to limit bird deaths independently. Chokecherry and Sierra Madre, the nation’s largest proposed wind farm slated for development in south-central Wyoming, released a draft environmental impact study that included a conservation plan that would kill far fewer eagles —10 to 14 each year — than previous estimates of up to 68 deaths. Kara Choquette, spokeswoman for the Power Company of Wyoming that oversees the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm, says the company is reviewing the proposal to see how it might affect their newly developed conservation plan.

The proposed rule is open to public comment through July 5. 

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets

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