The battle over wind farms, dead eagles and a rule by the federal government

DANGEROUS FLIGHT: The federal government’s decision to give wind energy companies up to a 30-year permit to escape penalties for the deaths of eagles has sparked controversy. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Paul Domski is a falconer and a bird lover. And he really doesn’t like wind farms or the federal government’s recent decision to protect wind energy companies for up to 30 years for killing eagles.

“If I was the country’s energy czar I’d get rid of (wind farms),” said Domski, who is also the Mountain Region director of the North American Falconers Association. “From an avian standpoint, from a biological standpoint, they’re a disaster.”

Domski was one of a few dozen people to show up Tuesday night at a “public scoping meeting” on eagle management by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — one of five meetings the agency is hosting across the country to gather comments about possible changes to the agency’s regulations.

One of the hottest topics is the 30-year permit the USFWS approved last December.

“The span of time that a wind project is operational is about 30 years,” Brian Millsap, the USFWS national raptor coordinator told New Mexico Watchdog. “So a five-year permit only covers them for one-sixth of a project’s life.”

Environmentalists are split when it comes to wind farms — embraced by some as a big part of the country’s renewable energy portfolio but disliked by others because of the number of birds that are killed by the turbines spinning in the wind.

“They look like they’re going slow,” Domski said, “but at their tips, they can move as fast as 150-160 miles an hour, and they just kill the birds.”

The actual numbers of birds that are killed each year is hard to determine, but last December, a study published in Biological Conservation estimated between 140,000-328,000 fatal bird collisions each year at wind farms.

In a separate study, federal biologists say at least 85 eagles have been killed by wind turbines in the U.S. since 1997.

While the bald eagle is no longer listed as endangered, killing one still carries a fine up $250,000 and even two years in prison.

That’s why critics of wind farms are upset with the 30-year permit, which allows — in a classic government bureaucratic euphemism — the “non-purposeful take of eagles.”

“These turbines set off currents such that the birds want to use them to fly off of to gain altitude,” Domski said.

The Audobon Society called the 30-year permit “outrageous” and last month the American Bird Conservancy filed a lawsuit in protest.

“It’s a 30-year permit but there are mandatory, at least every five years, checkpoints,” Millsap said.

Wind energy companies, he said, “have to provide us with data we use to predict how many eagles the project will take … If we find out at the end of those five years that our prediction was an underestimate of the actual fatality rate, they will be conditions in that permit that they’ll have to implement to reduce the number of fatalities.”

But how does the agency know the wind farm officials aren’t simply lowballing the numbers?

“The monitoring they do is a condition of their permit,” Millsap said, adding that the USFWS officials have the right to inspect facilities “at any time.”

But Domski is skeptical.

“How do we know they’re not just picking up bird carcasses?” he asked. “And what about energy companies that put up wind farms on private land? They’re not required to report at all.”

In New Mexico, bald eagles can be found in places such as Heron Lake, but golden eagles are much more common.

Ray Powell, the New Mexico state land commissioner, is a big fan of wind farms.

In May, he signed a lease agreement with a wind energy company for a project on 31,000 acres of private land and 19,000 acres of state trust land in Union County, making it the fifth wind project on state land.

“There were some pretty cataclysmic events that occurred when people didn’t think about where they were putting (wind farms),” Powell said. “They put them in the pathways and major flyways, particularly in California, of migratory birds.”

But Powell says the industry has made improvements.

“That doesn’t mean that there still can’t be damage done, but I think people are working really hard to minimize that damage,” Powell said.

Powell said his office does not keep track of the number of birds killed on wind farms on state trust land.

“Strictly from an energy and money point of view, (wind farms are) ineffective,” Domski said. “Their profit margin is so narrow and their lifespan is so short … and in the winter months when it’s cold out and there’s no wind they have to power them to keep them warm, so they use energy.”

After its Albuquerque stop, the USFWS makes two final stops on its five-city scoping tour — in Denver and Washington, D.C. However, the agency will take written comments from the public until Sept. 22.

So if enough people complain about the 30-year permit regulation, will the USFWS change its policy?

“We will look and consider all the comments that we receive,” Millsap said, “but certainly I would expect that if there were a lot of comments concerned about that 30-year permit, it would get a lot of serious attention in the evaluation.”

“It isn’t an either-or situation,” Powell said. “We need the energy, and this is renewable, sustainable energy. We just have to do it the right way and in the right places.”

But Domski has already made up his mind.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service, in my opinion, is a puppet organization for the executive branch,” Domski said. “And I’m a Democrat, I voted for Obama but the big push for green energy is not biologically sound and it doesn’t make sense from a carbon point of view. It’s strictly to make it look like we’re doing something positive.”

Here’s part of New Mexico Watchdog’s interview with Millsap of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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