The bald eagle, a national symbol that is generally protected from harm, won’t be flying so high next year.
The Obama administration on Wednesday finalized a rule that lets wind-energy companies operate high-speed turbines for up to 30 years — even if means killing or injuring thousands of the birds and their golden eagle cousins.
Under the new rule, wind companies and other power providers will not face a penalty if they kill or injure as many as 4,200 bald eagles each year, nearly four times the current limit. Deaths of the more rare golden eagles would be allowed without penalty so long as companies minimize losses by taking steps such as fixing power poles to reduce the risk of electrocution.
The new rule will conserve eagles while also spurring development of a pollution-free energy source intended to ease global warming, a cornerstone of President Obama’s energy plan, said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
“No animal says America like the bald eagle,” Ashe said in a statement. He said the Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to balance energy development with eagle conservation.
Wind power has increased significantly since Obama took office, and wind turbines as tall as 30-story buildings are rising across the country. The wind towers have spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet’s wingspan, and blades reach speeds of up to 170 miles per hour at the tips, creating tornado-like vortexes.
The surge in wind power has generally been well received in the environmental community, but bird deaths — and eagle deaths in particular — have caused disagreements.
The birds are not endangered species but are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The laws prohibit killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests or eggs without a permit.
It’s unclear what toll wind energy companies are having on eagle populations, although the Fish and Wildlife Service said as many 545 golden eagles a year are killed by collisions with wind towers, power lines, buildings, cars and trucks. Thousands more are killed by gunshots and poisonings.
Reporting of eagle deaths is voluntary, and the Interior Department refuses to release the information.
The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are about 143,000 bald eagles in the United States, and 40,000 golden eagles. Ashe called recovery of the bald eagle “one of our greatest national conservation achievements.”
The rule is set to take effect in mid-January, days before Obama leaves office. President-elect Donald Trump could change the rule or scrap it, but that process would probably take months or years.
Michael Hutchins of the American Bird Conservancy said Wednesday that his group has “some serious concerns” that the new rule will not do not enough to sustain populations of threatened eagles.
The National Audubon Society was also disappointed.
“As an organization we think a 30-year term is unreasonable, especially when we’re still learning about the impacts of wind and other technology on wildlife,” said Sarah Greenberger, vice president for conservation.
“It becomes that much more critical to work together because we feel strongly we should be making a transition to renewable energy,” she said. “There’s a way to do that in a way that’s beneficial for our planet.”