Wind energy boom and golden eagles collide in the US West
CODY, Wyo. (AP) — The rush to build wind farms to combat climate change is colliding with preservation of one of the U.S. West’s most spectacular predators — the golden eagle — as the species teeters on the edge of decline.
Ground zero in the conflict is Wyoming, a stronghold for golden eagles that soar on seven-foot (two-meter) wings and a favored location for wind farms. As wind turbines proliferate, scientists say deaths from collisions could drive down golden eagle numbers considered stable at best and likely to drop in some areas.
Yet climate change looms as a potentially greater threat: Rising temperatures are projected to reduce golden eagle breeding ranges more than 40% later this century, according to a National Audubon Society analysis.
That leaves golden eagles doubly vulnerable — to the shifting climate and to the wind energy promoted as a solution to that warming world.
“We have some of the best golden eagle populations in Wyoming, but it doesn’t mean the population is not at risk,” said Bryan Bedrosian, conservation director at the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyo. “As we increase wind development across the U.S., that risk is increasing.”
Turbines blades hundreds of feet long are among a myriad threats to golden eagles, which are routinely shot, poisoned by lead, hit by vehicles and electrocuted on power lines.
The tenuous position of golden eagles contrasts with the conservation success of their avian cousins, bald eagles, whose numbers have quadrupled since 2009. There are about 350,000 bald eagles in the U.S., versus about 40,000 golden eagles, which need much larger areas to survive and are more inclined to have trouble with humans.
Federal officials have tried to curb turbine deaths, while avoiding any slowdown in the growth of wind power.
In April, a Florida-based power company pleaded guilty to criminal charges after its wind turbines killed more than 100 golden eagles in eight states. It was the third conviction of a major wind company for killing eagles in a decade.
The number of wind turbines nationwide more than doubled over the past decade to almost 72,000, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.
To control the impact on eagles, federal officials want companies to obtain permits that allow them to kill some birds if the deaths are offset. Companies then pay utilities to retrofit power poles, so eagles can’t be easily electrocuted. Every 11 poles retrofitted typically counts as an eagle death avoided.
Nationwide, 34 permits last year authorized companies to “take” 170 golden eagles — meaning that many birds killed by turbines or lost through impacts on nests or habitat. An Associated Press public records review shows most are wind farms.
“This sounds crass but its realistic. Eagles are going to be incidentally killed at wind farms,” said Brian Millsap, who heads the wildlife service’s eagle program. “We’ve got to reduce other things that will allow wind energy development.”