The eagle has landed in rural Mower County, shutting down three turbines at the Pleasant Valley Wind farm for a month so far in hopes of preventing a deadly collision between the federally protected bird and churning blades just 200 feet away.
Xcel Energy discovered a pair of adult eagles and at least one eaglet high in a tree in a windbreak between two turbines near State Highway 56 and County Road 1 on March 10, immediately reporting the threat to federal Fish and Wildlife Service authorities.
In addition to idling the turbines closest to the nest through the summer, Xcel Energy plans to pursue a federal Eagle Take Permit that would protect the utility from liability in the event of an eagle death, according to an April 14 letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
"We're working with the state agencies and our environmental team to make observations and make any plans that we need to," said
Randy Fordice, a Xcel Energy media relations representative.
Bald eagles are no longer on the endangered species list, but killing bald eagles remains a felony punishable by a $250,000 fine and prison time. FWS generally exempts wind farms from prosecution for the unintentional "taking" of an eagle-any activity that may accidentally result in the disturbance or death of an eagle-such as in the production of wind power.
"The Company intends to apply for a Permit to Remove or Relocate an Eagle Nest and, depending on the outcome of the monitoring activities, an Eagle Take Permit. The Company will provide additional information and discuss this decision with the agencies further as survey data is collected and flight patterns are recorded," Xcel environmental analyst Jeff Berrington said in the letter to state regulators.
Yet wind power opponents and some environmental groups have criticized the feds for giving the industry a pass on the issue of eagle and bird mortality rates.
"Current U.S. wind energy policy amounts to a giant experiment with our eagles at risk. It is well known that poorly sited wind energy can result in numerous eagle deaths," Michael Hutchins, Director of the American Bird Conservancy's Bird-Smart Wind Energy campaign, said on the group's website.
It's not clear how many eagles die as a result of wind generation each year. But ABC estimates up to 1.4 million birds could be killed each year by wind turbines by 2030.
"Under the voluntary system, wind energy companies are solely responsible for reporting bird deaths at their facilities," Hutchins said. "As a result, FWS and the wind industry consider bird kill data the property of the companies and treat it as if it were a trade secret."
Concerns over the fatal impact on eagles, bats and other avian species led to the rejection of the Goodhue Wind Project in southeastern Minnesota in 2013.
"How can you destroy bird habitat in massive amounts and stick this threat into the migratory path of all kinds of birds, not just eagles, migrating every spring and fall, call it green energy and claim some sort of environmental benefit? I don't see it," said Kristi Rosenquist, who led the effort to stop the Goodhue County project.
The new nest was not there when the 200 megawatt Pleasant Valley facility went online in November 2015. The utility will conduct weekly nest surveys until the eaglet has fledged in late summer and monitor the birds' flight path over the next few months to determine next steps.