U.S. to give 30-year wind farm permits; thousands of eagle deaths seen

(Reuters) - Wind farms will be granted 30-year U.S. government permits that could allow for thousands of accidental eagle deaths due to collisions with company turbines, towers and electrical wires, U.S. wildlife managers said on Wednesday.

A bald eagle sits in a tree in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, Alaska October 8, 2014. REUTERS/Bob Strong/File Photo

The newly finalized rule, to go into effect on Jan. 15, extends the current five-year term for permits that allow for the accidental deaths of bald and golden eagles. The bald eagle is the national emblem of the United States.

The permits, which are meant for any activity that could disturb or kill eagles but will mostly apply to wind farms, are required under federal law.

Wind energy companies had sought the change from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, arguing they needed the longer permits to provide more stability to investors in the growing renewable power industry.

In 2013, the agency approved a similar plan extending “eagle-take” permits to 30 years, but a U.S. judge overturned it last year. The judge agreed with conservation groups that the agency had failed to properly assess the impact on federally protected eagle populations.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has said the growth in many sectors of the U.S. energy industry coincides with a rising number of bald eagles as well as an apparent decline in golden eagles.

The agency concluded that the population of roughly 40,000 golden eagles in the United States could withstand the loss of about 2,000 birds annually. Bald eagles, estimated at more than 140,000, could sustain as many as 4,200 fatalities a year without endangering the species, it found.

The number of eagles killed each year at wind facilities is not precisely known, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. An estimated 545 golden eagles are thought to perish annually from collisions with obstacles ranging from turbines to vehicles, the agency said.

The American Wind Energy Association said it hoped the new rule would provide “a workable permitting framework that gives the private sector necessary clarity” while maintaining healthy eagle populations.

Conservationists have said the longer permits threaten decades of protection that have saved the bald eagle from extinction.

The revised permit requires companies to hire a third party to collect data on eagle deaths rather than consultants hired by permit holders, a change hailed by Defenders of Wildlife, a backer of the measure.

However Michael Hutchins of the American Bird Conservancy said he wants more details on actions Fish and Wildlife would take if permit holders exceed the number of eagles they are legally allowed to kill.

Companies that exceed allowable limits could face fines or legal action, but that is not specified enough, Hutchins said.

The National Audubon Society was also disappointed. “As an organization we think a 30-year term is unreasonable, especially when we’re still learning about the impacts of wind and other technology on wildlife,” said Sarah Greenberger, vice president for conservation.

“It becomes that much more critical to work together because we feel strongly we should be making a transition to renewable energy,” she said. “There’s a way to do that in a way that’s beneficial for our planet.”

Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Ben Klayman and Jeffrey Benkoe