A wind farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore has applied for a permit to kill or harm bald eagles, but has promised a suite of other steps to bolster the iconic bird.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said this month that it plans to prepare an environmental assessment for a proposed eagle "take" permit for the Great Bay Wind Energy Center in Somerset County.
The 25-turbine project by Austin, Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy LLC is one of roughly a dozen wind farms that have applied to FWS for eagle take permits of varying lengths.
Bald eagles are no longer protected under the Endangered Species Act, but bald or golden eagle take -- which includes killing or disturbing the birds -- is still prohibited under multiple federal laws.
While FWS last month finalized a rule extending the length of eagle permits to up to 30 years, Pioneer applied under a 2009 rule that limits permits to five years, the agency said.
Adam Cohen, a vice president at Pioneer, said a 30-year permit could help the project obtain financing, though he did not indicate whether the company plans to apply for a longer permit.
Cohen said it's unclear how many birds are expected to be killed or harmed annually by the project, but he said bald eagle populations in the Chesapeake Bay region are robust and growing. Eagle take levels will be determined after FWS's 30-day public scoping period, which includes a public meeting Jan. 15 in Westover, Md.
"We need to ensure that population is stable or expanding," Cohen said.
While FWS initially predicted the project could kill up to 43 eagles per year, the project has been reduced in size from 60 turbines to 25 turbines and has been set back from prime eagle habitat such as the Atlantic flyway on the East Coast, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and the Pocomoke River watershed, Cohen said.
"We've avoided and minimized impacts to the maximum extent we can," he said.
A rough estimate based on 2012 nest data suggests there are about 30 nests within 10 miles of the Great Bay project, FWS said.
The company has worked with FWS for three years to develop additional mitigation steps, including shutting down certain turbines during daylight hours when eagles are likely to fly by and ensuring that no turbines are sited within a mile of an eagle's nest.
The company is also working with local poultry farmers on improved methods of composting chicken carcasses, which have attracted eagles to the site. It also plans to pursue hundreds of thousands of acres of conservation easements from landowners in the Pocomoke watershed to preserve key eagle habitat.
"We will be exploring other options for mitigation during the public scoping process and can incorporate new ideas into the eagle conservation plan," FWS said.
Those steps could help the project avoid opposition from environmental groups that have scrutinized the new eagle take permits.
Fish and Wildlife has yet to issue an eagle permit to a wind farm, though other projects, including a transmission line across the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area along the Delaware-Pennsylvania border, have obtained five-year take permits.
Groups including the National Audubon Society and Natural Resources Defense Council strongly opposed FWS's decision last month to allow 30-year eagle take permits, though groups are somewhat torn over the five-year permit rule.
Pioneer's project is being built in part to satisfy a Maryland law requiring 20 percent of energy to come from renewable sources by 2022.
Cohen said it's important to view wind power development in the context of climate change and the threat of rising sea levels that could destroy an unknown amount of eagle habitat in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Great Bay project comes amid a national debate over what level of bird deaths is an acceptable ecological tradeoff as wind farms are built to reduce the nation's reliance on fossil fuels.
While FWS argues that eagle take permits will ultimately benefit the birds, critics argue there are few proven ways to compensate for eagle deaths.
More companies are expected to apply for the permits after the Justice Department last month announced the first-ever criminal enforcement of bird protection laws at a wind energy facility, fining a North Carolina-based energy giant $1 million for killing more than 150 migratory birds, including 14 golden eagles, at two Wyoming wind farms over the past few years (Greenwire, Nov. 25, 2013).