WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Friday issued its new eagle management plan that flies into the center of the ongoing controversy of wind farms versus eagle mortality. The new regulation replaces a 2013 rule struck down last year by a federal judge in a suit brought by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) for National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) violations, including a lack of public oversight.
“While we are pleased with some aspects of the new rule, including increased transparency and independence of eagle kill data, we still have some serious concerns,” ABC’s Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign Director, Dr. Michael Hutchins, said. “The most prominent of these are the fate of the small eastern Golden Eagle population, which consists of only a few hundred individuals, and the lack of public involvement in the 5-year ‘internal’ reviews of the 30-year take permits. Unfortunately, this new rule again risks violating NEPA.”
The new management plan implements the 2009 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Eagles are also protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The changes to the Eagle Act are based on public input and new findings from a study conducted by the service and the U.S. Geological Survey that began in 2011 regarding the status and trends of the eagles’ populations, according to the agency.
Changes to the new management plan include an extension of permits to harm or kill eagles, referred to as “take,” from five to 30 years. These extended permits will be subject to five-year reviews, which will incorporate monitoring data provided by independent contractors who report to the agency.
The take allowance for bald eagles, which are considered to have a stable population of around 143,000 eagles nation-wide, is five percent. The take allowance for golden eagles, which have a declining national population of around 40,000, is set at zero, meaning any mortality under a permit would need to be mitigated at the rate of 1.2 to 1 (for example, if 10 golden eagles are killed, then the company would need to implement mitigation measures that would save 12 golden eagles). Mitigation measures, such as power-pole retrofits and lead abatement, would be credited based on credible monitoring and level of certainty regarding effectiveness.
ABC’s Hutchins expressed concern about the effectiveness of mitigation especially for the small eastern population of golden eagles. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in this, particularly in the risk to golden eagles,” Hutchins said. “If FWS is going to allow any wind energy facilities to be constructed in the migratory route of eastern golden eagles and issues take permits for these eagles, that’s potentially a huge problem for the vulnerable eastern population. It’s also troubling because we don’t know much about the effectiveness of mitigation yet.”
Currently, the agency notes that many projects have proceeded without applying for take permits. “When projects go forward without permit authorization, the opportunity to obtain benefits to eagles in the form of required conservation measures is lost and project operators put themselves at risk of violating the law,” according to the action.
“The impact of development on wildlife and their habitats can often be significantly reduced if there is the will and a framework to guide us,” Service Director Dan Ashe noted. “The service has a long history of working cooperatively with multiple industry sectors through the permitting system to reduce impacts to eagles and other federally protected wildlife species. Renewable energy development is increasing, reducing carbon emissions that jeopardize humans and wildlife through climate change. The service is working with these and other interests to help them implement practices to site, design and operate facilities in ways that reduce impacts to eagles and other animals.”
While the ABC remains cautious about the new plan, Defenders of Wildlife’s president, Jamie Rappaport, was more enthusiastic. “The service’s new comprehensive rule will advance bald and golden eagle conservation through enhanced permitting processes, which will prompt important conservation actions that will avoid and minimize harm to eagles,” she said. “These permits will also compensate for unavoidable impacts through robust offsite conservation measures that will result in a net conservation benefit for eagles, leaving them better off in the future. Third-party monitoring requirements will help federal agencies, developers and wildlife advocates track the status of eagle populations.”
The take permits apply to any project that might involve harm to eagles, not just wind farms. Applicants for short-term permits will pay $2,500, while applicants for long-term 30-year permits will pay $36,000 initially, with an additional $8,000 administration fee every five years to defray the service’s evaluation costs.
“While this rule applies to all industries, wind energy has undeniably been at the center of the debate around this rule. We need more clean energy to mitigate the effects of climate change, and we can do that without sacrificing our wildlife heritage. The service’s new eagle rule will help ensure we develop wind energy responsibly without jeopardizing bald and golden eagle conservation,” Rappaport said.
The new eagle management plan is effective Jan. 17, 2017.