“How many bald eagle deaths from a North Dakota wind farm can wildlife officials accept?”
The Fargo Forum recently posed that stark question in the headline for a no-nonsense story on the dangers to the national symbol posed by the turbines at the Courtenay Wind Farm up and running since 2016.
Wind farms are hailed as a source of clean, renewable energy. But even wind energy supporters acknowledge that those spinning wind turbine blades impose an environmental cost: dead birds.
Consequently, federal wildlife officials are mulling a morbid question involving a large North Dakota wind farm: How many bald eagle deaths do they consider acceptable for a bird that is legally protected and hallowed as a national symbol?
Yet the headline could just as well have read this way: “How many bald eagle deaths from a wind farm can Xcel Energy and its Minnesota customers and developers accept?”
While Edina-based Geronimo Energy developed the project, Xcel Energy now owns and operates the 100 turbine operation and applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a permit to allow the wind farm to legally kill eagles as a condition of doing business.
The USFWS website delicately dances around the environmental paradox.
There may be bald eagle mortality due to the operation of the Project. Take, including killing of eagles, is prohibited by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has been delegated the authority to issue eagle take permits, where the take is determined to be compatible with the preservation of eagles. The Service will issue permits for such take only after an applicant has committed to undertake all practical measures to avoid and minimize such take, and mitigate any remaining take, when applicable.
Xcel has applied for a five year federal permit to kill eagles under a process established by the Obama administration. So how many dead eagles does the utility consider to be acceptable in exchange for the project’s subsidies?
Their tentative answer: About one per year, or up to five dead bald eagles over a five-year permit period. That’s a key provision of a draft environmental assessment for a bald eagle taking permit for the Courtenay Wind Farm north of Jamestown, N.D., which would allow up to five protected bald eagles to be “incidentally” killed over five years.
There’s no way to know for sure how many eagles have been or will be killed by Courtenay’s wind turbines. But clearly the utility and feds consider them collateral damage.
The permit under consideration by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that birds, including bald eagles, sometimes are killed when they collide with wind turbines, are electrocuted by high-voltage power lines, or suffer breeding productivity losses through habitat destruction resulting from wind farms.
The Courtenay Wind Farm’s number of allowable bald eagle deaths was computed after surveys and observations of the site, including before it was built, and based on published research, Smith said.
If the number of bald eagle deaths exceeds the number allowed, wildlife officials will work with the wind farm’s company to find ways to reduce risks, he said.
In fact, Xcel isn’t even required to apply for the eagle taking permit. But there’s not even a voluntary process in place for the hundreds of other migratory species also at risk in the flyway.
“We’ve developed wind projects to provide our customers low-cost energy and significant environmental benefits,” Randy Fordice, an Xcel Energy spokesman, said in a statement. “As with all development, we do it responsibly. We fully understand and appreciate concerns around wind turbines and wildlife, and follow best practices to protect eagles and other wildlife near our wind farms.”
Yet as the number of bald eagles in North Dakota continues to increase, roughly double over the last decade, so will the number of casualties due to wind farms. But it’s a trade-off environmentalists appear more than willing to accept.