The debate over the unintentional killing or injuring of golden and bald eagles in wind turbines is set to intensify, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks comment over the next few weeks on a new rule that would increase by nearly fourfold the number of bald eagles allowed to die or be injured at the hands—or blades—of alternative energy.
A revised federal regulation would make it legal for any industry, including wind-energy companies, to unintentionally kill or injure up to 4,200 bald eagles a year without penalty so long as they have a permit. Current federal regulations allow a “non-purposeful take” (killing or injury) of up to 1,103 bald eagles for up to five years.
The new rule could allow up to 126,000 dead bald eagles over 30 years—a number the Fish and Wildlife Service has determined is low enough to maintain the eagle population.
The wind has been harnessed as a viable source of renewable energy for hundreds of years. But those 30-foot wind turbines, with gyrating, 170-mph blades that look like gigantic blenders on the landscape, are killing our sacred eagles in astounding numbers. In Northern California’s Altamont Wind Resource Area alone, which has more than 4,900 wind turbines—making it one of the largest wind farm operations in the world—an estimated 75 to 100 golden eagles fly into the blades and are slaughtered every year, according to Save the Eagles International, a conservation group focused on protecting eagles, birds and bats from wind-farm deaths.
The environmental impact study on the revised 30-year eagle-take rule is in the middle of a 60-day comment period that started on May 6, 2016, and will end on July 5, 2016. This comment period marks a unique opportunity for Natives—or anyone else—to weigh in. Eagle advocates say that American Indians could provide crucial input, especially since consultation with tribes has been minimal.
Many Native groups have been fiercely against eagle take permits for years, said Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which represents about 250 tribal governments in the U.S.—approximately 75 percent of the Native population in this country.
“We are on record about our opposition to this new eagle take rule, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has completely disregarded and ignored Native American concerns in favor of green energy development,” Holden told Indian Country Today Media Network.
That development comes at too high a price for a sacred animal, many say.
“Basically, they are allowing the wind industry to treat eagles like deer,” said Michael Hutchins, director of the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign.
According to the U.S. government’s current estimates, there are 143,000 bald eagles and 40,000 golden eagles in this country. While the bald eagle is no longer considered an endangered species, both types of eagles continue to be protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (Eagle Act) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. These federal laws prohibit “killing, selling, or otherwise harming eagles, their nests or eggs.”
An exception to that is the eagle take rule. The new rule lays out eagle-management goals, outlines ways to monitor the birds’ population, and explains the permitting system within the context of Fish and Wildlife’s eagle management protocol, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe told the Associated Press.
But the Osage Nation, which has fought against eagle take permits in court, said no one is speaking for the eagles.
“Who is going to protect that bird?” said Everett Waller, chairman of the Osage Minerals Council, adding that his tribe is adamantly against the proposed rule. “I thought it was sacred to the United States and the Native American people.”
Eagles hold a special and revered place in Osage tribal ceremonies, Waller noted.
“When we lay every one of our dead souls down, we send an eagle feather with them to help them get to paradise, heaven and home,” he said. “We have done this for ten thousand years.”
The American Wind Energy Association has suggested that fears over eagle deaths via wind turbines may be overblown.
“Eagle fatalities occurring at modern wind farms are an exceedingly rare, but extremely unfortunate event the industry takes very seriously,” the trade organization said on its blog, noting that the rule applies not only to wind farms but also to “railroads that routinely strike birds, utilities power lines that cause disturbances, disruption at ports from vessel traffic, and airports that need to remove eagle nests for safety purposes.”
For the current draft programmatic environmental impact study, Fish and Wildlife said it had consulted with 61 government agencies and organizations. Only one Native organization was listed: NCAI.
“Did they consult with us properly? Absolutely not! There is a consultation process, and they did not follow protocol,” said Holden of the NCAI, which drafted a passionate resolution in 2014 against improper consultation regarding eagle take permits. “There was a minimal effort to talk to us, but even so, we are an adjunct for tribes. There should have been a much larger consultation with individual tribes and Native people across the country and once again, they did not attempt appropriate consultation for this type of profound impact on tribes.”
Specifically at issue for Hutchins is the credibility of the reported mortality data. If this new regulation will allow up to 4,200 bald eagles a year to be killed by obstacles in migratory flyways, including wind turbines, he asked, who exactly is in charge of the overall body count?
“The Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed wind-energy companies to hire paid consultants to collect and record the mortality data. We consider this a direct conflict of interest,” said Hutchins, who believes a lot of these kills go unreported. “It isn’t in the wind-energy companies’ best interest to report the data accurately because they could be slapped with heavy fines or shut down. The fox is definitely watching the henhouse.”
The good news is that anyone can weigh in, and Hutchins and others believe that Native input could be crucial in determining the outcome. To register your comments online: Go to www.regulations.gov. In the "Search" box, enter FWS–R9–MB–2011–0094, which is the docket number for this rulemaking. Then click the “Search” button. On the resulting page, you may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”
Alternatively, send comments by U.S. mail to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R9–MB–2011–0094; Division of Policy, Performance, and Management Programs; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC; 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.