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
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“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.

The Fish & Wildlife Service, in its draft environmental assessment [PDF] of the West Butte permit application, is considering giving the developer a permit that would allow it to take up to three birds during a five-year period – the service’s best estimate at the number that would be killed by the development – while requiring “compensatory mitigation” that would produce a net take of zero. West Butte estimated the number of eagles that would be killed at “1 to 2 over the 20- to 30-year life” of the project, according to the Fish & Wildlife Service documents.

west butte wind permit
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Liz Nysson of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), which is based in Bend, Ore., 30 miles west of the West Butte site, echoed Fuller’s cautious optimism about the application. “West Butte isn’t a high golden eagle impact project and the developer has appeared to do everything they can to make sure the project is smart from the start,” Nysson said. “With a good, strong permitting process in place, we could see all wind projects are sited and developed in a similar way.”

Whether the permitting process is as strong as ONDA would like it to be remains to be seen, Nysson said.

One immediate objection the ABC did have with the permitting process was that it allows 30 days for comments on the West Butte application. Fuller said 60 days was more appropriate for the precedent-setting process, and said the group would seek an extension. Details on commenting on the application are available on the Fish and Wildlife Service website.

Golden eagles, by way of conservation ranking, are currently not considered endangered or threatened.