The Obama administration published new rules Friday that will allow wind turbines to kill bald eagles for 30-year periods as long as the owners agree to increase conservation measures such as taking steps to avoid unnecessary electrocutions of the national bird.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got a little defensive in issuing the final regulations on eagle "take permits," or licenses to kill, saying the Obama administration's focus is to protect eagles, not to allow the wind industry to get away with unrestricted killings, according to the final rule published in Friday's Federal Register.
The new permitting rules do not mean that wind turbines are inherently detrimental to the national bird population, the agency explained, saying there has been widespread misunderstanding of what the regulation does and does not do.
The new regulation modifies a 2009 rule that extended incidental take permits for bald and golden eagles for five years, which in many cases did not reflect the operational life of wind turbines, which can extend well beyond 25 years. The new rules would extend permits for up to 30 years as long as project developers take steps to improve the eagles' habitat, like making sure electricity distribution hardware is constructed out of the way of eagles to avoid electrocutions.
"No animal says America like the bald eagle, and the service is using the best available science to make eagle management decisions that promote eagle conservation," said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe in a statement on the final regulation. He said the agency's actions have brought eagle populations back in the lower 48 states, and the new regulation builds on that success.
But that doesn't mean the agency isn't a bit defensive over its new regulations. From the time the rules were proposed, it has been perceived as giving more leeway to renewable energy than other projects because of the administration's focus on reducing emissions and combating climate change.
"Contrary to published reports, proposed changes to our Eagle Conservation and Management Program do not give wind energy companies — or any other industry, organization or individual — license to kill thousands of eagles each year without consequence," Ashe said in a May op-ed published by the Huffington Post when the rule was proposed. "The notion that we intend to permit the killing of more than 4,000 bald eagles is wrong. Period.
"That number appears in our proposal only as a scientific reference point that signals the 'tipping point' at which our biologists tell us overall eagle populations would be at risk," he said.
President-elect Donald Trump said during the campaign that he has problems with wind energy because it kills thousands of birds.
Wind energy "kills all the birds," Trump said in October on a radio program. "Thousands of birds are lying on the ground. And the eagle. You know, certain parts of California — they've killed so many eagles. You know, they put you in jail if you kill an eagle. And yet these windmills [kill] them by the hundreds."
Trump's ideas may have filtered down into the rulemaking process in comments by stakeholders, requiring the agency to defend the regulation against what it called "a general lack of understanding."
The agency in the final rule said many of the commenters on the proposed rule "indicated a general lack of understanding of how the service's proposed approach to manage incidental take at wind facilities under an adaptive management framework is intended to work," the regulation reads, suggesting that many people perusing the rule didn't really get it. Others came away with the idea that wind turbines kill more eagles than any other project, which prompted the agency's defensiveness.
"The service's emphasis on eagle incidental take permits for wind facilities reflects administration priorities for expanded wind energy development and a desire to minimize the impacts of that growth on eagles," it said in the Federal Register. "It does not reflect a belief that wind development poses a disproportionate risk compared to other activities that may incidentally take eagles, nor does it reflect any greater availability of permits to wind companies versus other types of industries that may need eagle incidental take permits."
The agency also pointed out that killing eagles is against the law, and that the agency and the Justice Department have taken enforcement actions against five wind facilities in the last 18 months "concerning unauthorized incidental take of eagles."
Commenters criticized the regulation, which takes effect next year, for allowing wind turbines to kill as many as 4,200 bald eagles and 2,000 golden eagles annually "without prosecution," the agency said in the final rule.
"This brief and widely publicized statement distorts the actual facts about the proposed rule in at least four ways," the agency said.
First, it implies that the service "will ignore violations by wind companies," which it will not.
Second, the numbers of allowed kills for bald eagles "are in reality the amount of take that the service estimates could occur without resulting in a population decline," it said, adding that "the actual number is likely significantly higher."
It said the numbers "do not represent" the expected number of eagles that the agency "anticipates authorizing under permits," it said. It said the 2,000 number for annual kills of golden eagles is "without basis."
"Finally, the estimated sustainable take limits are not allotted to the wind energy industry; the service issues permits to homeowners and other individuals; local, state, tribal and federal agencies; and many types of businesses," it said. "In fact, the majority of permits that have been issued under the 2009 regulations have been for temporary disturbance or removal of inactive nests for safety purposes."