(AP) -- The number of criminal cases filed by U.S. Wildlife officials against wind energy companies for harming or killing protected bald and gold eagles has dropped dramatically in recent years.
U.S. data revealed the falloff in enforcement in eagle laws, which began under the Trump administration but continued even after Joe Biden became president. The Associated Press obtained data from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The news comes amid growing concerns that wind turbines, which are being installed to meet the growing demand for renewable energies, could be putting golden eagles at risk. Populations of these birds were already declining in certain areas.
Documents from the government show that dozens of permits, approved or pending, would allow for approximately 6,000 eagles be killed over the next few decades. The majority of permits are for wind farm construction, and over half of the birds killed would be golden-eagles.
As the Biden Administration tries to combat climate change, the AP findings -- that eagles are still dying in significant numbers while fewer criminal charges are being pursued -- highlight a dilemma. To achieve this goal, clean energy development requires trade-offs. For example, more birds will die from collisions with turbines that are as tall as 260 feet and have blade tips that spin at speeds exceeding 150 miles per hours (240 kilometers per minute).
Mike Lockhart, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist I think they're killing a lot of eagles more than they expected.
To offset the deaths, companies often promise to do conservation work. Direct payments are made for the dead birds in some permits -- approximately $30,000 per bird. Many permits allow for the killing of bald-eagles without compensation.
The Biden administration is currently working on a proposal that would streamline the process further. In some cases, permits could be automatically granted as wind energy projects and power lines networks can harm eagles or disturb their nests.
Lockhart, who retired from the Wildlife Service in 2009, has been researching the impact of wind turbines on golden eagles as part of a government contract. This research is being conducted by Lockhart under central Wyoming. Golden eagles on their migration soar over the flat sagebrush plains of central Wyoming, where hundreds wind turbines were installed in the last 15 years.
Turbines killed six golden eagles Lockhart previously trapped and tagged as part of his research. This included a male who had successfully bred five years in a row. The biologist stated that the bird was killed two months after 2021, when a wind farm began operating a mile away from the nest.
In some wind farms, companies have reduced the number of turbines in order to reduce deaths. Lockhart, however, said that turbines are still being installed in areas where golden eagles frequent. The cumulative impact could be devastating for these birds.
There are plans to build many more turbines.
A U.S. official has warned that wind energy projects in Wyoming could result in the deaths of 800 to 1,000 golden-eagles. A Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist stated this during a meeting on March 28, with eagle research, wind energy companies and Government officials.
Lockhart stated that the impact on wildlife, especially golden eagles will be exponentially increased.
Officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service said that they were working to prevent such a situation by working with businesses to reduce bird death. Vanessa Kauffman, spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service said that they expect to see a much lower final number.
A few high-profile prosecutions have been brought against wind companies who continued to kill eagles in spite of warnings by wildlife officials. These include major utilities Duke Energy and NextEra Energy. Each company committed to taking steps to reduce eagle mortality.
According to court and government records, the number of eagle fatalities increased at Duke Energy's Wyoming windfarms after it reached a deal in 2013 that included a fine of $1 million and protected it from prosecutions for 10 years. The company claims that the rate of eagle deaths has decreased since installing a camera system which detects eagles, and shuts down nearby turbines.
Documents show that eagle deaths at PacifiCorp wind farms have continued, but at a reduced rate, since it paid $2.5 in fines and compensation in 2015. NextEra did not report how many eagles were killed in its wind farms after it was ordered to make $8 million worth of fines and restitutions last year. PacifiCorp, NextEra and PacifiCorp did not answer questions regarding their respective cases.
The three companies received or applied for permits allowing accidental killing of eagles to be done without penalties, provided they take steps to reduce the number.
In the last few years, wildlife officials have approved permits for over two dozen wind power projects in the United States. This was sometimes despite opposition from Native American groups that worship eagles.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes objected to the permit, but officials approved it last year. This allowed Tucson Electric Power Co., which operates 62 turbines on the southern New Mexico coast, to kill 193 Golden Eagles over a period of 30 years. Federal officials stated that a permit was the only way to require conservation measures such as compensating or minimizing eagle losses.
Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, in Minnesota, says that the Biden Administration should not move forward with its plan to streamline permits. Chairman Robert Deschampe claimed that wildlife officials have 'abandoned protections' for eagles nests, and have ignored tribal concerns.
Lakota Hobia, Historic Preservation Officer for the Gun Lake Tribe in Michigan, said that the tribe is concerned about the impact on the future of destroying more eagles nests. Hobia said that eagles were sacred to the tribe and their nests should be protected as they are our sacred sites, Tribal historical properties, and tribal historic properties.
In support of simplified permitting, several major environmental groups joined forces with Duke Energy and other utilities to lobby the White House. Environmentalists say that regulating the wind energy industry via permits is preferable to companies ignoring or covering up eagle fatalities out of fear of being prosecuted.
Steve Holmer is vice president of American Bird Conservancy's policy department.
He said that under the Biden administration the Wildlife Service has "conflicting mandates": they are directed to advance renewable energies and yet have obligations to conserve eagles."
Conservationists claim that the proposed changes are too dependent on companies to monitor themselves and lack sufficient oversight.
Eric Glitzenstein, Center for Biological Diversity, said that 'it's kind of doomed for failure if there aren't objective, neutral, and experienced people going in to monitor the situation.'
FALLING CASE NUMBERS
During the second term of Barack Obama, violations of the Eagle Protection Act increased after wind farms proliferated. An AP investigation revealed dozens of unprosecuted eagle death cases including those at Duke Energy's Top of the World Wind Farm.
On the request of the oil and natural gas industry, utilities, and other companies, appointees of the Republican administration have rolled back enforcement. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects over a thousand species, including eagles.
Biden's order reversed this rollback. Nevertheless, the number of cases dropped and reached its lowest level in a ten-year period in the first year under the Democrat, with only 49 violations recorded, after a peak of 232 in 2014, when Obama was in office. Under Trump, they averaged 67 violations per year.
The figures don't include the majority of NextEra violations, because the case against NextEra -- involving at least 150 eagles deaths at 50 wind farm dating back to 2010 -- wasn't fully closed at the time AP requested its data.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials responded to initial questions about the decline by blaming it on the Trump Administration's decision not to enforce the law against accidental bird deaths. The agency later changed its mind, saying that officials 'could not identify a specific reason as to why violations or investigations dropped.
According to AP analysis, only one out of eight Eagle Protection Act cases from 2012 until early 2022 ended in a fine, probation, or jail sentence. These cases include golden or bald eagles that were injured or killed, nest disturbances, and the taking eagle parts such as feathers.
It is ultimately up to the prosecutors whether criminal charges will be brought. The courts are responsible for determining fines, prison sentences and other penalties.
She said that not all criminal investigations provide evidence of criminal violations of federal law.
For years, wildlife advocates have complained that the agency’s law enforcement operation is understaffed and underfunded. In its budget request for 2024, the service revealed that special agents are at historic low levels. 47 agents will be forced to retire in the next 4 years.
'EAGLES FLY...BLADES SPIN'
The bald eagle population has grown dramatically over the last decade. However, the golden eagle population is only about 40,000. They need much bigger areas to hunt and survive on the windy plains of Western states where utilities have installed thousands of turbines.
At least 61 eagles have been killed in Wyoming by Duke Energy's turbines since the company pleaded guilty in 2005 to the killing of 14 eagles on wind farms.
Since Top of the World began operating in 2010, at least 56 eagles were killed. Misti Sporer, a company scientist, stated that the 110 turbines were not installed until the company developed a process to properly place them in order to avoid areas where eagles live.
Duke installed a sophisticated computerized camera system on the site several years ago to detect approaching eagles. The blades of a turbine that is in the path of a bird can be stopped within one minute.
Sporer stated that eagle fatalities haven't stopped since the cameras were installed. However, they are down more than 60%.
She said, 'Today we wouldn't likely put those windmills where they are.' We are taking (eagles), incidentally, through otherwise legal operations. It just so happens that blades and eagles are spinning in the air. There's a conflict inherent when both are in the same place.
Matthew Brown is on Twitter
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