By Megan McGlamery
Concerns are growing across the nation over the number of birds, particularly eagles, that are losing their lives. Now, as the number of wind energy projects grows, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to issue “take” permits that will make it legal for wind energy companies to kill eagles with no consequences.
The move comes as San Diego County Supervisors are poised to consider a wind energy project for East County as well as a proposed wind ordinance that would make it easier for industrial-scale wind projects to be built here.
Killing eagles is currently a federal crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. Individuals and companies have historically been found guilty and held accountable for eagle deaths—but no wind farm operator has ever been prosecuted, despite numerous documented eagle deaths from wind turbines.
“Taking” is defined as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct,” of any endangered species.
“As we adjust laws rightfully passed to protect birds, we want to make sure the wind power industry is not stagnated in its mission to generate clean energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” says Stu Webster, director of permitting and environmental at Iberdrola Renewables, which seeks to build Tule Wind, an industrial-scale wind facility in McCain Valley with 450-foot-tall turbines.
He observes that in Wyoming, 280 of 300 eagle fatalities were attributable to oil and gas electrical lines that power wells.
Nationwide, however, about 450,000 birds are killed by wind turbines every year—a number that will surely grow as more wind facilities come on line.
Every year, wind turbines at the Altamont Pass Wind Farm in the Bay Area kill approximately 75 to 100 eagles, according to the Audobon Society. Some are decapitated. Others lose their wings, or are cut in half, suffering a painful and sometimes tortuous death.
In San Diego County, there are only 94 nesting eagles—47 pairs. Many have foraging areas near proposed wind farms slated for McCain Valley near Boulevard and Ocotillo, adjacent to Anza Borrego Desert State Park.
Mark Duchamp, president of Save the Eagles International, is strongly against the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to issue the permits throughout the nation.
“Eagles are a federally protected species. Yet the USFWS is minded to issue licenses to kill Golden Eagles in order to benefit wind farm developers.”
Wildlife biologist Jim Wiegand contends that larger modern turbines with larger blade sweeps are capable of killing even more birds than those with older, smaller and slower-moving blades. Moreover he has stated that many bird kills go unreported, since the dead birds may be carried off by scavengers and the carcasses never found. Some injured birds will also fly to areas outside the search site before succumbing to their wounds.
The USFWS contends that after fulfilling a rigorous set of criteria, the permits are permissible.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently in the process of finalizing Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance that could allow the take of bald and golden eagles provided the applicant meets a set of standards,” says Alexandra Pitts, Deputy Regional Director for the Pacific Southwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This guidance provides help to Service biologists and others in applying the regulatory permit standards as specified in the 2009 Final Eagle Permit Rule.”
Because wind turbines and eagles are attracted to similar wind currents, wind farms are often times built in the direct path of the birds, causing them to be killed.
Two companies seeking to build wind farms in the San Diego area funded a study on bird kills at their facilities in Texas. Pattern Energy owns 118 turbines at the Texas site and aspires to build even more at Ocotillo; Iberdrola Renewables owns 168 at the Texas site and aims to erect 137 turbines in McCain Valley. The companies voluntarily released results of their first yearlong studies.
Pattern estimates up to 921 birds and 2,309 bats were killed between Aug. 24, 2009, and July 31; Iberdrola's estimates were 1,812 birds and 3,087 bats for the same period. The studies claimed no endangered species were found and that bird killings matched the national average, though one researcher found bat kills higher than expected.
But some experts criticize the studies as neither credible nor conclusive, noting that work was paid for by the wind energy companies and results were not peer-reviewed, the San Antonio News Express reported.
Locally, people are disturbed about the imminent death of such beloved and endangered birds, which until now have been protected by both the Bald and Golden Eagle Act of 1940 and by the 1918 Migratory Treaty Act.
"Wind turbines, if placed incorrectly, can be a great threat to golden eagles," said David Bittner, executive director of the Wildlife Research Institute in Ramona, ECM news partner 10 News reported. Bittner has documented several local eagles killed by wind farms in other areas.
“I strongly oppose the license to kill that ‘take permits’ represent--especially when we have such declining numbers of Golden Eagles in San Diego County,” states Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Commission. “Industrial scale wind turbines are inefficient, expensive boondoggles that should not be allowed anywhere near people, wildlife, livestock, recreation areas, etc.,” she concluded.