Kodi, Wyoming –
The spate of wind farm construction to combat climate change is colliding with conservation of one of the western US’s most spectacular predators — the golden eagle — as the species teeters on the brink of decline.
Ground zero in the conflict is Wyoming, a stronghold of the Golden Eagles, which reach 2 meter wingspans, and a popular site for wind farms. As wind turbines proliferate, scientists say deaths from the collisions could reduce the number of golden eagles thought to be stable.
But climate change poses a potentially greater threat: rising temperatures are projected to reduce golden eagle breeding ranges by more than 40% later this century, according to analysis by the National Audubon Society.
This makes the golden eagle doubly vulnerable – to the changing climate and to wind power, which is being touted as the solution to this warming world.
“We have some of the best golden eagle populations in Wyoming, but that doesn’t mean the population isn’t threatened,” said Brian Bedrosian, conservation director for the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming. “As we drive wind development in the US, that risk is increasing.”
Brian Bedrosian, an ecologist with the Teton Raptor Center, prepares to return a young golden eagle to its nest after spotting the bird for future tracking as part of a long-term population study of the species near Cody, Va., Wednesday, June , banded 15th, 2022. prepare.
Turbine blades hundreds of feet long are among the myriad threats to golden eagles, who are routinely shot on power lines, poisoned with lead, hit by vehicles, and electrocuted.
The vulnerable status of golden eagles contrasts with the conservation success of their cousins, the bald eagles, whose numbers have quadrupled since 2009. There are an estimated 346,000 bald eagles in America, around 40,000 golden eagles that require much larger territories to survive and are more prone to get into trouble with humans.
Federal officials have sought to curb turbine deaths while avoiding a slowdown in the development of wind power as an alternative to CO2-emitting fossil fuels – a key part of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda.
In April, a Florida-based energy company pleaded guilty in federal court in Wyoming to criminal violations of wildlife protection laws after its wind turbines killed more than 100 golden eagles in eight states. It was the third conviction of a major wind company for killing an eagle in a decade.
Despite the deaths, scientists like Bedrosian say more turbines are needed to fight climate change. He and colleague Charles Preston are investigating ways wind companies can reduce or offset eagle die-offs, e.g. B. by building in areas of low bird frequency, improving habitat elsewhere, or reducing them when eagles land. Strengthening power poles to make them dangerous.
Researcher Charles “Chuck” Preston places a young golden eagle in a bag for temporary removal of the bird on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 as part of research into the species population near Cody, Virginia. After that he can be returned to his nest.
“It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul, but it’s a start and I think it’s the right way forward,” Preston said. “It’s a social question: is there room for them and for us? It’s not just golden eagles. They are like a window into the big picture.”
Hanging from a rope 30 feet off the ground, with a canvas bag around his neck, the Bedrosian made his way to a golden eagle’s nest on the edge of a cliff in northwest Wyoming. As an adult eagle circled in the distance, the scientist made a strange catch for the young eagle in the nest, slipped the leather hood over its head, and then put the bird in his pocket.
The 6-week-old bird was disembarked from Preston and carefully removed, as a precaution tying a zipper around its legs to avoid locks longer than an inch.
“The key is to remember to cut the zip tie afterwards,” Bedrosian said.
The eagle walked on a scale – about 7 pounds (3.2 kg). Bedrosian drew some blood from a feather to test for lead exposure, and Preston attached a numbered metal band to each leg to determine whether the eagle was recaptured or found dead.
A six-week-old young golden eagle’s claws are seen as a bird’s feet by Charles “Chuck” Preston during research at a nest site near Cody, Virginia, Wednesday, June 15, 2022.
Bedrosian said that golden eagles do not mate until they are about 5 years old and produce about one chick every two years, so the death of the adult eagle has affected the population.
According to federal estimates, illegal shootings are the leading cause of death, with about 700 golden eagles killed annually. More than 600 people die each year in collisions with cars, wind turbines and power lines; About 500 cause electrocution annually and more than 400 are toxic.
“10 years ago, wind mortality was not a thing for golden eagles,” Bedrosian said. “I don’t just want to take the wind. … But it is the additive nature of all these things and many are increasing. Vehicle attacks are increasing. Climate change is increasing. The wind is picking up.”
Federal officials would not disclose how many eagles were killed by wind farms, this is sensitive law enforcement information. The recent prosecution of a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, one of the largest US renewable energy providers, offered a glimpse of the scale of the problem.
The company pleaded guilty to three counts of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and was ordered to pay more than $8 million in fines and reparations after killing at least 150 eagles — including Wind in Wyoming, California, New Mexico. The farms contain over 100 gold. North Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Arizona and Illinois.
Clouds cast shadows near wind turbines at a wind farm along the Montana-Wyoming state line on Monday, June 13, 2022.
Government officials said the death toll was likely higher because some of the turbines killed many eagles and the bodies were not always found.
Prosecutors said the company’s failure to take action to protect the eagles or obtain permits to kill the birds gives it an advantage over competitors who are taking such steps — even as NextEra and allies have been accused of harnessing wind power. received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal tax credits.
The company remained disobedient even after the plea deal: NextEra President Rebecca Kuzawa said bird collisions with turbines are unavoidable accidents that shouldn’t be criminalized.
Utility companies Duke Energy and Pacificcorp had previously pleaded guilty to similar charges in Wyoming. North Carolina-based Duke Energy was sentenced to a $1 million fine and reparation and five years’ probation in 2013 after the deaths of 14 golden eagles and 149 other birds at the company’s two wind projects.
A year later, Oregon-based PacificCorp was fined $2.5 million and given five years of probation after 38 golden eagle carcasses and 336 other protected birds were discovered at two of its sites.
With the development of prime golden eagle fields in states like Wyoming, Montana, California, Washington and Oregon, the number of wind turbines has more than doubled to nearly 72,000 in the past decade, according to US Geological Survey data.
USGS scientists, in a recent study, concluded that if the projected increase in wind power occurs by 2040, the increase in turbine deaths could nearly halve the golden eagle population in about 10 years.
However, the fact that no population-wide decline has been observed in recent years indicates some uncertainty in the estimates. Lead author Jay Defenderfer said.
Federal Wildlife Agency is asking wind companies to enroll in a permit program that will allow them to kill eagles if the deaths are compensated.
Businesses with permits can pay utility companies to retrofit utility poles so the lines are far enough apart that the eagle is not easily electrocuted. Every 11 newly planted spears usually means one eagle death is avoided annually.
Nationwide, 34 authorized companies allowed 170 golden eagles to be “saved” last year – meaning many birds could be killed by turbines or lost to nest or habitat impacts.
For each loss, companies are responsible for avoiding at least one eagle death elsewhere. Brian Milsap, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s eagle program, said that at conservative estimates, potential fatalities could also benefit the eagles in the long term.
“It sounds bullshit, but it’s realistic. Eagles are accidentally killed in wind farms,” he said. “We need to scale back other things that allow for the development of wind power.”
Agency officials declined to disclose which companies held the permits. An Associated Press review of public records shows that this is the case for most wind farms.
Power lines stand near the hills outside of Cody, Wyoming, Wednesday June 15, 2022.
Federal officials collect golden eagle death data through an online reporting system used by government agencies, corporations, scientists, tribes and private groups.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials declined to release the data, saying it could be used in future law enforcement cases.
The nests, where Bedrosian and Preston are studying the population, are about 60 miles (96 kilometers) from the nearest wind farm — the 114 turbines PacificCorp commissioned near the Wyoming-Montana border about two years ago.
On-site workers use binoculars to scan the sky for eagles and can turn off turbines when the birds arrive.
“We’re seeing more golden eagles in the prairie areas, where you’re going to have the best wind regime,” said Travis Brown, a biologist at PacificCorp. “It’s almost like competing for the wind resource because the birds use it to move.”
Ten Pacificcorp wind farms have received approval to allow the accidental killing of the eagle, and two others have applications pending, the company said.
Company officials declined to say how many eagles were killed under its federal permit. He said Pacificcorp is building a “bank” of retrofitted power poles to compensate for eagle deaths and also wants to try new methods, such as B. Turbine blades more visible and easier to escape.
“We work as hard as we can to avoid and reduce (death) and then we reduce whatever we can’t do at the back end. “