The Interior Department moved forward with a plan Friday to greatly extend the life of permits that allow wind farms and other projects to accidentally kill bald and golden eagles, angering conservationists who said it would result in needless bird deaths.
The new rule, which goes into effect Jan. 8, would allow builders of wind farms, electrical transmission lines and other projects to seek permits that last as long as 30 years and would assign them a numerical annual limit for accidental eagle deaths. Currently, such projects can apply only for five-year permits, though none has been granted to date.
In return, backers of those projects would have to show that they are taking steps to minimize deaths of the iconic birds and mitigate the damage their work causes. Government officials would review their performance every five years.
Daniel M. Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the advance planning and increased monitoring required by the longer permits would lead to fewer eagle deaths.
“We’ll [have] processes to avoid and minimize the amount of [eagle deaths] that will occur, and provide specific authorization for that take,” he said.
Though power transmission lines kill more eagles than do wind turbines, Ashe and others said the purpose of the rule is, in part, to encourage development of wind energy. Lenders and builders wanted assurances that the wind farms will be permitted for the estimated lifetimes of the projects, officials said.
That upset conservationists, who said the rule’s design pits them against environmental allies who are trying to advance the growth of renewable energy.
“We absolutely support the deployment of renewables. We know we have to get renewable energy deployed quickly,” said David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society. “But what [the government] did was they threw wildlife under the bus, and that didn’t have to happen.”
Yarnold said he has no faith in the five-year review plan because the government previously told his group it did not have enough money to carry it out.
However, Peter Kelley of the American Wind Energy Association said the rule is “good news for eagles” and would aid wind-farm development.
The government has enforced the law against wind farms killing eagles only once: last month, when Duke Energy pleaded guilty to doing so at two wind facilities in Wyoming.
Estimates of eagle deaths from wind turbines vary. In a study published this year, six U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers counted 85 bald and golden eagle deaths at 32 wind farms between 1997 and 2012 but said the number underrepresents the true total.