Wind power boom and golden eagles collide in western US

Wind power boom and golden eagles collide in western US

CODY, Wyo. (AP) – The race to build wind farms to fight climate change is colliding with the preservation of one of the western US’s most spectacular predators – the golden eagle – as the species teeters on the brink of decline.

Ground zero of the conflict is Wyoming, a stronghold of golden eagles that soar on seven-foot wings and a prime location for wind farms. As wind turbines proliferate, scientists say crash deaths could reduce the number of golden eagles considered stable at best and likely to drop in some areas.

However, climate change emerges as a potentially greater threat: rising temperatures are expected to reduce golden eagle breeding grounds by more than 40% by the end of this century, according to an analysis by the National Audubon Society.

This leaves golden eagles doubly vulnerable – to climate change and wind power promoted as a solution to this warming world.

“We have some of the best populations of golden eagles in Wyoming, but that doesn’t mean the population isn’t at risk,” said Bryan Bedrosian, director of conservation at the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming. in the US, that risk is increasing.”

Turbine blades hundreds of meters long are among the myriad threats to golden eagles, which are routinely shot, poisoned by lead, hit by vehicles and electrocuted in power lines.

The tenuous position of golden eagles contrasts with the conservation success of their avian cousins, the bald eagles, whose numbers have quadrupled since 2009. There are about 350,000 bald eagles in the US, up from about 40,000 golden eagles, which need much larger areas to survive and are more likely to have problems with humans.

Federal officials have tried to stem the turbine deaths by preventing any slowdown in wind energy growth – a key part of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda.

In April, a Florida-based energy company pleaded guilty to criminal charges after its wind turbines killed more than 100 golden eagles in eight states. It was the third conviction by a major wind company for killing eagles in a decade.

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Hanging from a rope 30 feet above the ground with a canvas bag slung around his neck, Bedrosian shouldered his way to a golden eagle’s nest perched on the edge of a cliff. The scientist tried to grab the young eagle in the nest, slipped a leather hood over his head and stuffed it into his bag.

The six-week-old bird was lowered and carefully extracted by Bedrosian’s colleague Charles Preston, with a clamp around its feet as a precaution against two-centimeter-long claws.

“The key is not forgetting to cut your tie later,” Bedrosian said.

The eagle climbed onto a scale – about seven pounds (3.2 kg). Bedrosian took some blood from one wing to test for lead exposure, and Preston attached a metal identification band to each leg.

Golden eagles don’t mate until about 5 years of age and produce about one calf every two years, so adult eagle deaths have huge impacts on the population, Bedrosian said.

Illegal shootings are the leading cause of death, killing about 700 golden eagles annually, according to federal estimates. More than 600 die annually in collisions, including with cars and wind turbines.

“Wind mortality was not a thing for golden eagles 10 years ago,” Bedrosian said. “I don’t want to take the wind as the only thing. … But it’s the addictive nature of all these things and several are on the rise. Vehicle strikes are on the rise. Climate change is increasing. The wind is picking up.”

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The recent criminal prosecution of a subsidiary of NextEra Energy offered a glimpse into the scope of the problem.

The company was ordered to pay more than $8 million in fines and restitutions for killing eagles at wind farms in eight states.

NextEra remained defiant after the plea deal: its president said that bird strikes with turbines were unavoidable accidents that should not be criminalized.

Duke Energy and PacifiCorp have already pleaded guilty to similar charges in Wyoming. Duke, based in North Carolina, was sentenced in 2013 to $1 million in fines and restitution and five years of probation after the killing of 14 golden eagles, and a year later, Oregon-based PacifiCorp received $2.5 million in fines and five years of probation on 38 dead eagles.

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The number of wind turbines across the country has more than doubled in the last decade to nearly 72,000, according to data from the US Geological Survey.

To control the impact on eagles, federal officials want companies to obtain permits that allow them to kill some birds if the deaths are compensated. Companies then pay utilities to refurbish power poles so the eagles aren’t easily electrocuted. Every 11 adapted posts normally counts as an eagle kill averted.

Across the country, 34 permits last year authorized companies to “catch” 170 golden eagles – meaning many birds were killed by turbines or lost to impacts on nests or habitat. A review of public records by the Associated Press shows that most are wind farms.

“That sounds gross, but it’s realistic. Eagles will be accidentally killed in wind farms,” ​​said Brian Millsap, who leads the wildlife service’s eagle program. “We have to reduce other things that will allow wind power to develop.”

The nests where Bedrosian and Preston are doing population studies are about 96 kilometers from the nearest wind farm — 114 turbines that PacifiCorp started operating about two years ago, near the Wyoming-Montana border.

On-site personnel scan the skies with binoculars for eagles and can turn off the turbines as they approach. Ten PacifiCorp wind farms have licenses that authorize the accidental killing of eagles, according to the company.

Company representatives declined to say how many eagles died at these facilities. They said PacifiCorp is building a “bank” of retrofitted power poles to offset eagle deaths and also wants to try new approaches, such as painting turbine blades to be more visible and easier to avoid.

“We’re working as hard as we can to prevent and minimize (the deaths) early on, and whatever we can’t, we’re mitigating on the backend,” Brown said.

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On Twitter follow Matthew Brown: @MatthewBrownAP

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The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Science Education Department of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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