This was a great year for golden eagles, with a record 50 of them seen at NJ Audubon’s Cape May Hawkwatch, mostly last month.
Or at least it was a great year until Dec. 6, when the U.S. government announced it would allow wind farms and other projects to kill federally protected eagles for the next 30 years.
The only requirement for this license to kill is that wind farm operators show they are making some effort to try not to kill eagles. I haven’t heard of anything that can be done to prevent eagle deaths once a wind turbine is built, so the requirement may simply be to donate some money to conservation elsewhere.
A surprising number of eagles and other birds already are being killed by wind farms.
The Wildlife Society Bulletin, a peer-reviewed publication, estimated in March that 573,000 birds are killed annually by U.S. wind farms, including 83,000 birds of prey.
In September, U.S. Fish and Wildlife researchers published a study finding that at least 87 golden and bald eagles were killed by wind farms from 1997 to 2012, with nearly 80 percent of the fatalities in the last four years of that period.
Most deaths in that study were recorded in just two states: 29 in Wyoming and 27 in California.
The researchers said the study understates U.S. eagle kills because of a lack of rigorous monitoring and reporting.
For example, the study didn’t include the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in California, where a 2006 California Energy Commission report estimated between 40 and 116 golden eagles are killed annually.
The Fish and Wildlife study said most of the eagles died from dismemberment or blunt-force trauma when struck by wind turbine blades.
The National Audubon Society called the 30-year permits to kill bald and golden eagles “a stunningly bad move for eagles.”
“Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, (the Department of) Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check,” Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold said in a statement. “It’s outrageous that the government is sanctioning the killing of America’s symbol, the bald eagle.”
Bald eagles as a species probably would survive widespread killing by wind farms, although their numbers and locations might be greatly reduced. Extensive bald eagle restoration programs have been a conservation success; I see them around South Jersey on a regular basis.
Golden eagles, however, are much rarer and more susceptible to our new blenders in the sky. The Fish and Wildlife Service says wind farms could drive them to extinction unless their deaths are offset by programs to increase numbers elsewhere.
“The service determined that golden eagle populations might not be able to sustain any additional unmitigated mortality at that time, and set the thresholds (for allowed killing) for this species at zero for all regional populations,” the Fish and Wildlife Service says in its Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance.
We need to be more careful about where we put wind turbines. The small five-turbine demonstration project in Atlantic City is among several studied extensively by NJ Audubon. Atlantic County Utilities Authority workers there say they’re seeing only about two bird strikes per turbine a year (and not eagles).
The environmental community also needs to be more thoughtful and less emotional about embracing green initiatives.
The good feeling of supporting alternative energy allowed government and industry to rush into it on their self-serving terms, and now we’re left to reconcile that feeling with the horror of a sanctioned perpetual mass slaughter of birds.