(CNSNews.com) -- New 30-year permits that will be issued next month by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) will quadruple the number of bald eagles that wind farms will collectively be allowed to kill per year and avoid prosecution under the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Under the new $36,000 “incidental take permits” - which are to be reviewed every five years by an independent third party – the number of bald eagles that can be killed by permit holders will increase from 1,100 currently allowed under 2009 regulations to 4,200 when the Final Rule goes into effect on Jan. 17, 2017, according to the Associated Press.
“The Service’s emphasis on eagle incidental take permits for wind facilities reflects [Obama] Administration priorities for expanded wind energy development and a desire to minimize the impacts of that growth on eagles,” FWS noted. “It does not reflect a belief that wind development poses a disproportionate risk compared to other activities that may incidentally take eagles.”
The FWS explained that the new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations are intended to “minimize the impacts” of wind farms on the eagle population. “There is nothing in the revised regulations that will increase take, though we hope more ongoing unpermitted take will be captured under permits in the future,” the agency said.
The new regulations will require long-term permit holders to “search for injured and killed eagles” and then “estimate total take using methods approved by the Service,” according to the Final Rule published in the Federal Register on December 16th.
Permit holders will “be required to provide compensatory mitigation to offset predicted take over each 5-year period.”
Potential permittees will also have to “implement all practicable best management practices and other measures that are reasonably likely to reduce eagle take” to less than 5 percent of the LAP [local area population] for a project already in operation. The “practicable” standard is a modification of the current “unavoidable” standard.
Any permitted facility that exceeds its authorized eagle kill limit would not be fined or criminally prosecuted, although it could still be “subject to an enforcement action at any time for unpermitted prior take of eagles,” according to the Final Rule.
“Only applicants who commit to adaptive management measures to ensure the preservation of eagles will be considered for permits with terms longer than five years,” according to FWS.
But Garry George, Audubon California’s director of renewable energy, pointed out that none of the new technologies used by the wind farm industry to lessen bird deaths “has been proven to work.”
The FWS “may be giving the industry certainty in a permit that allows them to kill eagles for 30 years, but they’re not giving us any certainty that it’s not going to send the population into a spiral,” George said.
Michael Hutchins, director of the American Bird Conservancy’s (ABC) Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign, also noted that the “lack of an opportunity for public input [during the five-year reviews] makes the rule vulnerable to legal challenges” under NEPA.
After being removed from the Endangered Species Act list of threatened species in 2007, the population of bald eagles is now estimated at 143,000 in the lower 48 states and Alaska. FWS estimates that it “will continue to increase until populations reach an equilibrium at about 228,000.”
But FWS believes the current stable population of 41,000 golden eagles “might be declining toward a lower equilibrium size of about 26,000 individuals.” For that reason, the permitted number of golden eagles killed “would still be set at zero, requiring that all authorized take be offset by compensatory mitigation,” according to the new regulations.
Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it’s illegal to kill or injure eagles – even unintentionally – without a permit. The penalties can range up to a $500,000 fine and two years in prison.
FWS says that “no progress has been made” in its efforts to create an “accurate estimate of collision probability” for eagles at wind farms because “to date, so few incidental take permits have been issued at wind facilities.”
In response to comments from the public, FWS noted that “in the last 18 months, the Service has resolved five civil enforcement actions concerning unauthorized incidental take of eagles… at 15 different wind- energy facilities,” resulting in $55,000 in civil penalties and another $1.8 million to develop technologies to reduce the number of bird deaths.
In 2013, North Carolina-based Duke Energy Renewables became the first wind power company to be found criminally liable under MBTA for killing 163 protected birds, including 14 golden eagles, at two of its wind farms in Wyoming. The company pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $1 million fine and another $900,000 in restitution and compensatory mitigation.
Last year, Oregon-based PacifiCorp became the second wind energy company to be prosecuted. It was fined $2.5 million for killing 38 golden eagles and hundreds of other protected migratory birds at its wind energy projects in Wyoming.
“No animal says America like the bald eagle, and the Service is using the best available science to make eagle management decisions that promote eagle conservation,” FWS Director Dan Ashe said in a statement.
“Our success in recovering this bird when its populations plummeted in the lower 48 nearly a half-century ago stands as one of our greatest national conservation achievements. The final revised regulations build on this success, taking a comprehensive approach to eagle conservation and demonstrating the Service’s longstanding commitment to bald and golden eagles, responsible industry operations, and the interests of the American people.”