Golden Eagles Vs. Big Wind Farm: Who Wins?

Conservation groups are saluting West Butte Wind Power’s use of a federal permitting process that could allow the company’s planned central Oregon project to “kill, harass or disturb” a total of three golden eagles over a five-year period while generating up to 104 megawatts (MW) of electricity. It’s the first time a wind power developer has stepped forward to apply for what is known as a “take” permit under rules finalized in 2009, and the groups are hopeful it might signal the beginning of wind development that is systematically sited and reviewed to minimize environmental impact.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act makes it illegal to harm the birds, but the federal government has been loath to bring prosecutions for incidental take by wind power companies. “The result has been that many, many birds have been killed,” said Kelly Fuller, wind campaign coordinator for the American Bird Conservatory (ABC), a leading advocate on wind/bird issues. Most notoriously, wind turbines in the Altamont Pass area east of San Francisco Bay that were installed in the 1970s and 1980s – and which are now being revamped – resulted in dozens and perhaps hundreds of golden eagles dying annually.

golden eagle, west butte wind permit

image via Shutterstock

“Our hope would be that the permit process means wind development proceeds in a responsible way. So we’re glad to see this developer step forward,” Fuller said. “Companies should be required to pick smart sites and take the actions necessary to ensure they are not putting birds and other wildlife at risk.”

If companies did that and got their take permits, Fuller said, then birds could be protected – and companies that complied with their permits would be protected from prosecution. ABC wants the federal government to make the permitting process mandatory, but as it stands, it’s voluntary.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Anonymous

    If industrial wind farms are now killing hundreds of endangered golden eagles that are protected, why does anyone believe this will change when they are given permission to kill them? u00a0How naive are we??

    • “Permission to kill them” isn’t a fair way to describe an incidental take permit. An incidental take permit is an explicit agreement to operate in a specific manner that by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination will result in no net loss of the protected species (and please note, golden eagles are not endangered; they are protected). It would carry with it an enforcement mechanism that does not now effectively exist. And, importantly, it would open the wind development process to public scrutiny and input in a new way.This is why conservation groups — even those who have been the biggest thorns in wind’s side, the ABC — are supporting an incidental take permit system.