Mary Hartman almost daily makes the 45-minute drive from her home east of Rochester, Minnesota, to a horse farm north of town, where she takes out a 15-year-old mare named Paloma for rides around the countryside.
The horse’s name comes from the Spanish word for dove, but there’s another symbolic bird that Hartman says she sees on nearly every ride: the bald eagle.
As Hartman read last year about the proposed Goodhue Wind project, a 48-turbine wind farm that would be built a short ride from her horse’s stable, she thought about the eagles she sees on her rides.
“They were in an area where this developer said there were no bald eagles, and I set about to correct that,” said Hartman, who has since become one of the project’s most visible opponents.
The group of citizens trying to stop the development have raised nearly every concern imaginable, from aesthetic complaints to health and safety fears. Today, the focus will be on Hartman’s eagles.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to hear testimony and take action today on the developer’s avian and bat protection plan, which outlines the company’s plans to monitor and minimize the impact on area wildlife. The commission has to approve the plan as a condition of the site permit it issued last summer. (UPDATE: The PUC voted 2-1 Thursday to reject the plan)
It’s unlikely to be the last word on the wind farm’s wildlife impact, though. AWA Goodhue has also agreed to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on an “incidental take permit.”
While bald eagles are no longer considered an endangered or threatened species, they are still protected under the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act.
The permit would let federal officials add conditions to the project in exchange for legal protection in the event that eagles are killed or disturbed by the wind farm. The Goodhue project would be among the first in the country to apply for such a permit.
What’s in the plan?
In its wildlife protection plan, AWA Goodhue describes several steps it says it will take to reduce the risk its turbines will pose to bats and birds. They include:
- Siting turbines whenever possible in open agricultural fields and away from streams or wooded areas;
- Minimizing lighting on towers and other structures to avoid attracting or confusing birds and bats;
- Providing funding to set up a county roadkill disposal site to keep eagle-attracting carcasses away from turbine areas.
The developer also offered to maintain at least a one-mile buffer between any turbine and the nearest eagle nest — half the distance that federal wildlife officials have recommended. The number and placement of active nests has since been a point of contention, with citizens like Hartman documenting and reporting several previously overlooked sites to wildlife officials, who have confirmed some of them.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) raised a long list of questions and complaints last month about AWA Goodhue’s original protection plan document. The January 12 letter accuses the developer of failing to collect and improperly excluding data from its bat surveys so that the results were “misleading.” It says a DNR employee in December observed an adult eagle sitting in a nest the developer’s study marked as “inactive.” And it criticized AWA Goodhue’s claim that it couldn’t predict the collision risk for bald eagles because of alleged “eagle baiting” by the project’s opponents.
“Staff discussions with conservation officers in the area indicate that there is no known movement of deer carcasses for the purpose of baiting eagles occurring within the footprint,” wrote DNR environmental review planner Jamie Schrenzel.
The DNR also identified two eagle nests that were within less than a mile of turbines. Hartman has been preparing a map for Thursday’s commission meeting that shows 17 eagle nests she claims are in the greater area, 13 of them within a 10-mile radius of the project. She said opponents intend to argue that AWA Goodhue’s plan should be rejected on grounds that its nest maps are inaccurate or incomplete.