Obama admin approves first eagle-kill permit for wind farm

Source: Phil Taylor, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, June 27, 2014

The Obama administration announced approval of the first-ever permit for a wind farm to legally kill or harm protected eagles under a plan that officials say will have no overall harm on eagle populations.

The Fish and Wildlife Service today said it will issue Shiloh IV Wind Project LLC a five-year permit to “take” up to five eagles at its 50-turbine wind farm north of San Francisco.

The 100-megawatt project is the first wind farm to acquire a permit under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, a law that otherwise makes it a crime to harm the two iconic birds.

FWS Director Dan Ashe said the EDF Renewable Energy subsidiary is setting “a precedent for proactive and collaborative eagle conservation at wind farms in Northern California and beyond.”

The company declined Fish and Wildlife’s offer to allow it to apply for a 30-year eagle take permit under a separate rule the agency finalized late last year. The 30-year rule is strongly opposed by some bird advocacy groups and is being challenged in a lawsuit brought this month by the American Bird Conservancy (Greenwire, June 19).

Environmental groups have been more neutral on the five-year eagle take rule, which has been in place for a handful of years. Developers generally prefer the 30-year rule for the regulatory certainty it offers.

“We encourage other wind power developers in the region to follow this model to reduce overall eagle mortality at wind farms while reducing their risk of prosecution for the take of eagles, particularly as they repower their developments with newer turbines,” Ashe said. “We can’t solve the problem of eagle mortality at wind farms overnight, but this common-sense solution merits the support of all who advocate for the long-term conservation of eagles.”

The wind project, which has been in operation since 2012 and is retooled from a decades-old farm, is yet to kill or harm any eagles, FWS said. While its location in Montezuma Hills is 30 miles from Altamont Pass — a wind farm noted for its high rate of eagle deaths — there are far fewer golden eagles at the Shiloh IV project area because there is much less prey available, officials said.

Based on eagle numbers and wind farm data within a 140-mile radius of the project, the agency concluded no more than five eagles would be taken within the next five years.

But that harm will be more than offset by the company’s agreement to within one year retrofit 133 power lines to reduce eagle deaths from electrocutions. If mortality numbers exceed predictions, EDF will pursue “experimental advanced conservation practices” that could include the installation of audio-visual deterrents to keep eagles away, FWS said.

“Eagle permits are simply not easy to get,” said Scott Flaherty, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman. While wind energy will be here to stay, “it’s our job as an agency to ensure eagles are also here to stay.”

The agency’s Pacific Southwest Region, which includes parts of California, Nevada and southern Oregon, is also processing two other five-year eagle take permit requests from the Alta East wind project in the Tehachapi Wind Resource Area of Kern County and a Sacramento Municipal Utility District project in Solano County.

The Tule Wind Energy Project in eastern San Diego County has applied for a 30-year eagle take permit, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has applied for a 30-year non-wind programmatic eagle take permit, FWS said.

Those applications will likely see more scrutiny from environmental groups including ABC, the National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife, which have raised concerns over longer eagle permits.

ABC’s lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco argues the 30-year rule “subverts the basic eagle protection purposes of [the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act] and eliminates crucial procedural and other safeguards for eagle populations without any adequate explanation.”

While applying for an eagle take permit is voluntary, more wind companies are expected to do so after the Justice Department last November announced the first-ever criminal enforcement of bird-protection laws at a wind energy facility, fining a North Carolina-based energy giant $1 million for killing more than 150 migratory birds, including 14 golden eagles, at two Wyoming wind farms over the past few years (Greenwire, Nov. 25, 2013).