In a move that could have far-reaching ramifications for Wyoming’s growing wind industry, permitted wind developers will be able to kill eagles for up to 30 years, under a new rule announced Friday by the Department of Interior.
The rule extends the lifespan of what are known as “eagle take permits” from five to 30 years. The permits allow transmission operators, power producers and other industries to kill a limited number of eagles without penalty under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
“The changes in this permitting program will help the renewable energy industry and others develop projects that can operate in the longer term, while ensuring bald and golden eagles continue to thrive for future generations,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a prepared statement.
News of the change quickly reverberated around Wyoming on Friday. One of the largest planned wind facilities in the United States, the Chokecherry-Sierra Madre wind farm, will be built in Carbon County. The 1,000-turbine project is expected to generate between 2,000 and 3,000 megawatts of power.
The project’s developer, Power Company of Wyoming, announced earlier this week it would seek an eagle take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“PCW will discuss the availability of a longer-term permit as part of its ongoing dialogue with the service,” company spokeswoman Kara Choquette wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune.
She pointed to Fish and Wildlife guidelines that stipulate longer-term permits will only be granted to companies with an identified plan for limiting eagle deaths. PCW intends to pursue such measures, Choquette said.
Duke Renewable Energy, a North Carolina-based wind developer with two operational projects near Casper, will likely apply for a take permit, said spokeswoman Tammie McGee.
Duke became the first company ever prosecuted for killing 14 golden eagles and 149 other protected species between 2009 and 2013 at its Top of the World and Campbell Hill wind farms. In a recent settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, the company agreed to pay $1 million in fines and take measures to reduce and avoid avian deaths.
“It is hard for me to say whether or not the service will grant us a 30-year permit, but it is something we will certainly explore with them,” McGee said.
Christine Mikell, president of Wasatch Wind, did not return requests for comment on the ruling’s potential impact for her company’s proposed facility in Converse County.
Wind industry proponents pushed for longer take permits, saying they would facilitate the development of renewable energy projects. They welcomed the Interior Department’s announcement.
“This permit program promotes eagle conservation,” said John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association.
Environmentalists disagreed, saying the change would be devastating for some of the country’s most fragile bird populations.
“Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check,” said Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold in a news release. “It’s outrageous that the government is sanctioning the killing of America’s symbol, the Bald Eagle.”
Wind developers are not required to seek an eagle take permit, as some facilities are located in areas without eagle populations, said Dave Carlson, a coordinator at the Fish and Wildlife Service. But killing a bird protected under either the Migratory Bird Treaty or Bald and Golden Eagle Protection acts without a permit puts them in violation of the law.
The number of birds that can be killed is determined on a permit-by-permit basis, though in the case of golden eagles the net impact must be zero, Carlson said. Companies must prove they have a plan to minimize golden eagle deaths and identify measures to boost the bird’s population elsewhere to meet that threshold, he said.
Fish and Wildlife has two types of eagle permits: one for small scale takes, the other for larger “programmatic” takes, said service spokesman Chris Tollefson. Wind and other industrial uses falls under the latter category.
The service has never issued a programmatic permit, Tollefson said. It is currently considering around 15 such permits, the vast majority of which are from wind developers. The others are from utilities and two military bases, he said.
The change was prompted by the difficulty five-year permits presented to developers, who invest large amounts of time and capital in renewable energy and other projects, he said. The extended lifetime of the take permits is intended to better reflect the lifetime of those projects.
At the same time, he said Fish and Wildlife will review the permits every five years to make sure the conditions are being met.
“The overall goal is to bring more actions into a permitting regimen where we can help developers and operators to reduce fatalities,” Tollefson said. “We know takes are happening out there now, and it can be avoided.”