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Criminal cases for killing eagles decline as wind turbine dangers grow

Wind turbines are jeopardizing golden eagle populations already believed to be declining in some areas.
A bald eagle is seen landing
Posted at 7:00 AM, May 17, 2023

Criminal cases brought by U.S. wildlife officials for killing or harming protected bald and golden eagles dropped sharply in recent years, even as officials ramped up issuing permits that will allow wind energy companies to kill thousands of eagles without legal consequence.

The falloff in enforcement of eagle protection laws — which accelerated in the Trump administration and has continued under President Joe Biden — was revealed in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data obtained by The Associated Press.

It comes amid growing concern that a proliferation of wind turbines to feed a growing demand for renewable energy is jeopardizing golden eagle populations already believed to be declining in some areas.

Dozens of permits approved or pending would allow roughly 6,000 eagles to be killed in coming decades, government documents show. Most permits are for wind farms, and more than half the killed birds would be golden eagles.

The AP's findings — that significant numbers of eagles continue to die while fewer criminal cases are pursued — underscore a dilemma facing the Biden administration as it tries to confront climate change. Pursuing that goal through clean power development is requiring trade offs such as more dead birds from collisions with wind turbines that can tower 260 feet with blade tips spinning in excess of 150 miles per hour.

"They are rolling over backwards for wind companies," said Mike Lockhart a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. "I think they are killing a hell of a lot more eagles than they ever anticipated."

Companies often pledge to perform conservation work to offset the deaths. Some permits include direct payments for dead eagles — about $30,000 per bird. Numerous permits allow the killing of bald eagles with no compensation required.

A pending proposal from the Biden administration would further streamline permits — making them automatic in some cases as they allow wind-energy projects and power line networks to harm eagles and disturb their nests.

Since retiring from the wildlife service, Lockhart has continued researching wind turbine impacts on golden eagles under a government contract in central Wyoming. Migrating golden eagles routinely soar through the sage brush flats that define the region, where hundreds of wind turbines have gone up over the past 15 years.

Turbines have killed at least six golden eagles Lockhart had previously trapped and tagged for research, including a male that bred successfully in five out of six years. The biologist said it was killed about two months after a wind farm in 2021 started operating about a mile from the nest.

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Conflicting mandates

At some wind farms, companies have relocated turbines or reduced their numbers to minimize deaths. But Lockhart said turbines continue to go up in areas frequented by golden eagles, and the cumulative impacts could be disastrous for the birds.

Many more turbines are planned.

In Wyoming alone, anticipated wind energy projects could kill as many as 800 to 1,000 golden eagles, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist said during a March 28 meeting with eagle researchers, wind energy companies and government officials, according to meeting minutes.

"They're going to more than double the (wind) capacity and in doing that, the impacts on wildlife, particularly golden eagles, are going to be exponentially going up," Lockhart said.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they are working to avoid such a scenario by working with companies to reduce bird deaths. "We expect the final number to be much smaller," spokesperson Vanessa Kauffman said.

There have been a small number of high-profile prosecutions of wind companies that continued killing eagles despite prior warnings from wildlife officials — including major utilities Duke Energy, PacifiCorp and NextEra Energy. Each company agreed to take steps to limit eagle deaths.

At Duke Energy's windfarms in Wyoming, eagle deaths became more frequent after the North Carolina company reached a 2013 deal that included a $1 million fine and shielded it from prosecution for 10 years, according to government and court records. The company says the rate has fallen since it installed a camera system that spots eagles and triggers shutdown of nearby turbines.

Eagle deaths at PacifiCorp's wind farms continued, although at a lower rate, after it paid $2.5 million in fines and restitution in a 2015 case, documents show. NextEra has not reported how many eagles have been killed at its wind farms since it was ordered to pay $8 million in fines and restitution last year. PacifiCorp and NextEra did not respond to questions about their cases.

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All three companies subsequently received or applied for permits that allow accidental killing of eagles without penalty, providing they took steps to minimize the number.

Wildlife officials approved such permits for more than two dozen major wind projects across the country over the past several years, sometimes over opposition from Native American tribes that revere eagles.

Despite objections from the Colorado River Indian Tribes, officials approved a permit last year for Tucson Electric Power Co, operator of 62 turbines in southern New Mexico, allowing it to kill 193 golden eagles over 30 years. Federal officials said a permit offered the "only available avenue to require ... conservation measures," such as minimizing or compensating for eagle deaths.

The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Minnesota says the Biden administration should not go forward with its proposal to further streamline permitting. Chairman Robert Deschampe said wildlife officials had "abandoned" protections for eagle nests and ignored tribal concerns.

Gun Lake Tribe Historic Preservation Officer Lakota Hobia said the Michigan tribe was worried about the long-term impact of more eagle nests being disturbed. "Eagles are sacred to us, and their nests need to be protected in the same ways our sacred sites and Tribal historic properties are protected," said Hobia.

Several major environmental groups lobbied the White House with Duke energy and other utilities in support of streamlined permitting. Some environmentalists said regulating the wind industry through permits was preferable to having companies ignore or cover up eagle deaths out of fear of prosecution.

"Part of the issue is that companies have generally not been requesting permits and they've been taking their chances and there hasn't been a lot of law enforcement," said Steve Holmer, vice president of policy at the American Bird Conservancy.

Under the Biden administration, he said, the wildlife service has "conflicting mandates: They are being directed to advance renewable energy and then they have obligations to preserve eagles."

Some conservationists say the changes as proposed are too reliant on companies monitoring themselves, with not enough oversight.

"It's sort of doomed to failure if you don't have objective, neutral people with expertise going in and doing the monitoring," said Eric Glitzenstein with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Falling case numbers

Violations of the Eagle Protection Act rose during the second term of President Barack Obama, after wind farms had proliferated and an AP investigation found dozens of unprosecuted eagle deaths including at Duke Energy's Top of the World wind farm.

Under Trump, new cases fell off sharply. At the urging of the oil and gas industry, utilities and other companies, political appointees in the Republican administration rolled back enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act — which protects more than a thousand species in addition to eagles.

A Biden order reversed the rollback. However, cases continued sliding and hit their lowest level in a decade in the Democrat's first year with 49 recorded violations, after peaking at 232 under Obama in 2014. They averaged 67 annually under Trump.

The figures do not include most of NextEra's violations because the case against the company — which involved at least 150 eagle deaths at 50 wind farms dating to 2010 — was not fully closed when AP submitted its data request.

In response to questions about the falloff, Fish and Wildlife Service officials initially blamed it on the Trump administration's decision to end enforcement of accidental bird deaths under the migratory bird law. But the agency later retracted that, saying officials were "unable to identify a specific cause as to why violations and investigations dropped."

Only about one in eight cases brought under the Eagle Protection Act from 2012 to early 2022 resulted in fines, probation or jail time, according to AP's analysis. Those cases include golden and bald eagles harmed or killed and nest disturbances and the taking of eagle body parts, such as feathers.

Whether criminal charges are ultimately brought is up to prosecutors. Fines, jail time and other punishments are up to the courts and are outside the wildlife service's control, said agency spokesperson Christina Meister.

"Not every criminal investigation substantiates evidence of a criminal violation of federal law," she said.

Wildlife advocates have long said that the agency's law enforcement operations are understaffed and underfunded. In its 2024 budget request, the service revealed special agents were at historical low levels and that 47 agents will hit mandatory retirement in the next four years.

'Eagles fly ... Blades spin'

While bald eagle populations have grown exponentially over the past decade, there are only about 40,000 golden eagles, which need much larger areas to survive and hunt on the same windy plains where utilities have erected thousands of turbines in Western states.

In the five years after Duke Energy pleaded guilty to killing 14 eagles at wind farms in Wyoming, at least 61 more eagles were killed by the company's turbines in the state.

At Top of the World, at least 56 eagles have been killed since it started operating in 2010. The 110 turbines were installed before the company had an adequate process for siting them to avoid areas with eagles, said company scientist Misti Sporer.

Several years ago, Duke deployed an elaborate, computerized camera system at the site to detect incoming eagles. A turbine in a bird's path can be shut down within a minute to keep it from being chopped by a spinning blade.

Since the cameras were installed, eagle deaths have not stopped, although they declined by more than 60%, Sporer said.

"Today, we would likely not put those wind turbines where they are," she said. "We are ... incidentally taking these (eagles) through otherwise lawful operations, and so it just so happens to be that eagles fly in the air and blades spin. And there's inherently a conflict when you have both in the same location."