Can Eagles and Wind Turbines Coexist?

Both wind turbines and birds rely on the power of air currents to move them. That means that as more wind turbines are built, the towers claim...

Both wind turbines and birds rely on the power of air currents to move them. That means that as more wind turbines are built, the towers claim an increasing percentage of space once reserved only for avian flight. Some of the best sites for wind farms fall in the migratory paths of birds: The same wind currents attract both, and the birds end up killed. Those casualties are a particular problem when the species threatened are the same ones the government has decided to protect.

The federal government is in the process of debating how many eagles a wind farm in Oregon should be permitted to "take"—meaning disturb, injure, or kill. If the Fish and Wildlife Service grants a take permit to the West Butte Wind project, it will be the first ever awarded to a wind farm. In December, the agency published its preliminary assessment of the permit application, which would extend for five years, and the window for comments closed last week. West Butte Wind Power is asking for a permit covering one to two eagle takings over the 20-to-30-year lifespan of the project. In its draft assessment, the FWS estimates that anywhere between zero and 17 eagles could be significantly harmed.

Environmentalists and energy companies agree these permits are a positive step, although the wind industry would like the permits to cover longer stretches of time. Wind projects help circumvent drastic climate change, which do far greater harm to eagles and other birds than turbines do. A legal framework that deals with the danger to birds will hold wind power companies accountable for the damage they do. The Fish and Wildlife Service can require that companies improve eagle habitats elsewhere, or fund research on turbines that be less dangerous to birds. The agency can also require wind projects to install monitors that track bird movement in the area and to turn off the turbines if eagles approach.

In the mitigation plan the agency favored in its draft assessment, West Butte Wind Power would contribute $20,000 to an organization working toward golden eagle conservation. It would also help upgrade 11 electric power poles in the project area that pose a danger to eagles. If the wind farm kills any eagles, the company will make even more upgrades. It has also agreed to slow the speed of its turbines if research shows the change could help prevent eagles’ deaths. Environmental groups think even more should be done: The Oregon Natural Desert Association, a local organization that's been involved with the permit process, suggests that the company could help conserve an eagle habitat on nearby land to prevent it from being developed, for instance.

The West Butte project will be located east of Bend, Oregon, in a high desert area near the center of the state at the edge of a national forest. The project shouldn’t have more than 56 turbines, a relatively small projest. But if we're going to significantly decrease carbon emissions and successfully fight climate change, there will be many more of these projects to come. That expansion each come with a cost—it’s better that companies commit to mitigating it before they start building.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user gumdropgas

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