Soaring High: Helping to Conserve Eagle Populations
Eagles are iconic birds, recognized around the world for their grace and power. Many people admire eagles, yet bald and golden eagles face significant threats from human activity, including electrocution by power lines, poisoning from scavenging carcasses that contain lead shot or rodenticide, being struck by vehicles while scavenging road kill, habitat destruction, and being shot by ranchers concerned about loss of livestock.
By comparison, wind turbines cause relatively few eagle deaths. Since the unexpectedly high numbers of eagle fatalities at Altamont, the wind industry, conservationists, and scientists have worked together to minimize risk to eagles from wind turbines. But concern about the cumulative impact on eagle populations, particularly for golden eagles, has resulted in efforts to further reduce additional mortality from wind farms.
This has required continued research and collaboration across sectors. AWWI was founded to promote constructive dialogue and research on issues just like this, and has played a key role in bringing together parties from the wind industry, the conservation and research communities, government agencies, and vendors seeking to develop technical solutions.
“The beauty of AWWI is that it brings these groups together in a unique way,” observed Jenny McIvor, Vice President Environmental Policy and Chief Environmental Counsel at Berkshire Hathaway Energy Company and Chair of AWWI’s Board. “AWWI’s focus on collaboration and science-based solutions means it earns a lot of credibility among the scientific community.”
“AWWI has been a leader in advancing the discussion about minimizing and mitigating impacts to eagles,” said Dr. Todd Katzner, Research Wildlife Biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “They started by asking, ‘How can we conserve more eagles?’ and let that guide their search for new alternatives. USGS has actively participated in providing data and information to assist the decision making process.”
The USGS and Dr. Katzner’s team are consistently among the largest contributors to meta-analyses conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on movements and mortality rates of bald and golden eagles. At present, some 100 eagles are being monitored with satellite telemetry, and over the past 12 years a total of 400-500 eagles have been tracked.
“Looking back ten-plus years, the difference between what we know now, and how comparatively little we knew then, is striking,” mused Dr. Katzner. “There is so much more research being done on eagles today. Consequently, it is possible to create more effective management schemes to address the anthropogenic influences on bald and golden eagles.”
The bald eagle has staged an impressive comeback over the past several years, to the point that this species was removed from the list protected under the Endangered Species Act. Both bald and golden eagles remain protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which means that harming or killing either type of bird can result in stiff financial penalties.
This has led to two outcomes. First, wind developers invest significant resources into determining what if any impacts a wind farm might have on local wildlife. “We have a much better understanding of wildlife issues today as a result of the extensive monitoring we conducted to inform our Habitat Conservation Plan for MidAmerican Energy’s operating wind facilities in Iowa,” said Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s McIvor. “We used data to shape our conservation plan. The data we collected has helped us design a program to protect wildlife at our Iowa wind facilities.”
Second, considerable effort has gone into the development of regulations that make it possible to expand wind energy while also protecting eagle populations. This is achieved through “take permits,” which specify what a wind farm operator must do if an eagle is harmed or killed. Central to take permits is the concept of compensatory mitigation, which enables wind companies to offset any harm to eagles caused by a specific wind project with actions that will help other eagles, thereby maintaining a stable or growing population.
“The great opportunity presented by these permit regulations, and the reason we’ve participated extensively in efforts to shape their implementation with respect to the wind industry, is that through compensatory mitigation they can generate significant investments to address threats that pose much greater risks to eagle populations,” explained Joy Page, Director of Renewable Energy and Wildlife at Defenders of Wildlife. “These investments would not be made otherwise, and so the permits have the potential to create a ‘win-win’ for eagles, particularly given the threats they face from climate change.”
However, the list of actions that qualify as compensatory mitigation is very short – in fact, it’s a one-item list. Currently, retrofitting power poles to reduce the risk of electrocution is the go-to option by the wind industry and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that issues eagle take permits.
“So far, power pole retrofits are the only method for which we can point to quantifiable benefits with a reasonable degree of confidence,” explained Brian Millsap, National Raptor Coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Migratory Bird Management. “The challenge we face is that issuing a take permit creates a legal obligation for the Service. If we approve an action or set of actions as compensatory mitigation, it has to be legally, scientifically, and biologically defensible.”
“That said, the Service is absolutely open to other forms of quantifiable mitigation,” he continued. “AWWI has played a leading role in efforts to develop other methods that can be adequately and credibly quantified.”
“We need more mitigation options, but developing them takes a lot of rigorous, science-based modeling and testing to prove they’ll be effective,” said Tim Hayes, Environmental Director with Duke Energy Renewables. “AWWI has been a driving force behind work to broaden the range of potential mitigation solutions. Their commitment to science-based answers has meant they foster a productive working relationship among key stakeholders, and that has led to progress that I don’t think we would have seen otherwise.”
AWWI’s work in this area has resulted in the development of two additional models that have been published in peer-reviewed journals. One explores the potential for a reduction in eagle deaths from vehicle collisions by removing road kill. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accepts these models on a provisional basis, the next step will be to test their viability in real life settings. If approved by the Service, wind companies will then have additional compensatory mitigation options they can propose in their permit applications.
“As a company, and as an industry, we are devoting significant resources to addressing the issue of eagle take,” said Rene Braud, Director of Environmental Policy and Compliance at Pattern Energy. “Other compensatory mitigation options that are currently being explored include efforts to reduce the use of lead shot, repowering older wind farms to reduce the number of turbines, and removal of eagle food sources like livestock carcasses from wind farms or road kill in high-traffic areas.” Braud echoed others’ calls for more research, noting that “The availability of high-quality data is critical to updating risk models that help us predict eagle take.”
Bald and golden eagle populations have rebounded, but the community of wind-wildlife stakeholders will continue to work on ways to protect and conserve eagles for years to come, and AWWI will be there every step – er, flap – of the way, supporting research and collaboration to improve our collective understanding of these iconic birds.