BISMARCK — Bald eagles have put the brakes on a proposed wind farm in North Dakota as state regulators seek input on how the towers with their spinning blades could impact the national bird.
Rolette Power Development LLC applied to the state Public Service Commission in March for a site permit for a $175 million, 100.4-megawatt wind farm with up to 59 turbines about three miles south of Rolette in north-central North Dakota.
After a public hearing June 29, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notified the developer of a documented bald eagle nest within the project's study boundary and several other bald eagle nests in proximity to the 14,720-acre project area.
Project consultant KLJ checked the eagle nest database maintained by the state Game and Fish Department — which hadn't mentioned any nests in its response to a consultation letter in May — and verified that there are two active eagle nests about 2.4 miles and 4.5 miles from the project area boundary.
"Since the eagle nests are located outside of the Project Area, Rolette Power has no plans to alter the Project layout," KLJ's Grady Wolf wrote in an affidavit filed with the PSC.
But the PSC has scheduled an additional public hearing Nov. 2 in Rolette to gather more information about the project's potential impact to the eagles.
Commissioner Brian Kalk said the PSC has no standard setback requirement between eagle nests and wind turbines, and the hearing will focus on what the appropriate distance should be.
"There are more eagles out there, we've got more wind farms, so we want to find the right balance," he said.
Bald eagles have made a major comeback since 1972, when the federal government banned the general use of the pesticide DDT, which had decimated bald eagle populations by causing the birds to lay eggs with weakened shells.
The bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007 but remains protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
The number of active bald eagle nests in North Dakota has exploded in the past decade, from about 30 in 2005 to 170 currently — and those are just the nests surveyed by and reported to the Game and Fish Department, said conservation biologist Sandra Johnson, who manages the database.
"I'd say every year now I'm adding at least 30 to 40 new nests to the database," she said.
Johnson said the department knows that some birds get killed by wind turbine blades, but it hasn't studied mortality or avoidance rates. Given the distance between the nests and proposed turbines, she said her biggest concern would be that the wind farm could disrupt the eagle's feeding grounds.
Project manager Warren Enyart, who also is general manager of project partner M-Power LLC, said an environmental consultant has found that the eagles' foraging and hunting grounds appear to be in the opposite direction of the wind farm.
Still, steps are planned to prevent eagle deaths, including making sure ranchers within the project area quickly bury their stillborn calves and carrion so as not to attract the eagles, he said.
Rolette Power is jointly owned by Finley-based M-Power and Rolette-based Border Power LLC, which is owned by 27 participating landowners within the project's footprint, 46 local investors, 30 M-Power investors and several community development organizations.
Enyart said they had planned to start construction in August, but with the delay, they now anticipate starting next year. Obtaining the site certificate will help them market the project to potential investors and power purchasers, he said.
"This is a critical step for us," he said.
The public hearing is set for 10 a.m. Nov. 2 at Memorial Hall, 503 2nd Ave., Rolette.