The Decline of Criminal Cases for Killing Eagles and the Growing Dangers of Wind Turbines

by Joshua Brown
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In Rolling Hills, Wyoming, the United States wildlife department has seen a decrease in criminal cases involving harming or killing bald and golden eagles. Even though this number has decreased, the US wildlife department is now giving wind energy companies permits that allow them to kill thousands of eagles without facing any legal actions.

In recent years, the number of laws that protect eagles have been weakened and not enforced very strictly. This has become worse during the Trump presidency, and is continuing now under President Joe Biden. This is concerning because more wind turbines are needed to produce renewable energy which may be hurting golden eagle populations if they are decreasing in certain areas.

Thousands of eagles might be killed in the future based on permission documents. Most of these permissions are granted for wind farms; and out of those, more than half would involve killing golden eagles.

The AP’s research found out that a lot of eagles are still dying and fewer cases are being tried. This is something the Biden administration faces because they want to reduce climate change and do this by building clean energy such as massive wind turbines. These turbines can be really tall (up to 260 feet) with blades rotating at incredibly fast speeds (150 miles per hour).

Mike Lockhart, a former wildlife biologist, said that companies were making it too easy for wind farms and they are killing more eagles than was expected. To make up for the deaths of the eagles, these companies offer payments of around $30,000 for each dead bird. There are also some permits which allow organizations to kill bald eagle with no payment at all.

The Biden administration wants to make it easier for wind power projects and electricity networks to harm eagles and their nests. In some cases, they would be allowed to do this without any special permits.

Lockhart used to work for the Wildlife Service, but now he is researching how wind turbines affect golden eagles. This research is in central Wyoming, where lots of these giant turbines are situated among its sage-brush flats. This has been going on for 15 years.

At least six golden eagles have been killed by wind turbines. One of them was a male eagle that had bred with success for five out of six years until 2021, when a wind farm started operating near its nest. The eagle died about two months later.

Companies have made changes to some wind farms so that fewer golden eagles will get hurt, but more turbines are still being built in places the birds often visit. This could be bad news for the eagles if lots of turbines are added together.

At a special meeting with wildlife experts, wind energy companies and government officials in March, it was discussed that new wind energy projects set to take place in Wyoming could result in the deaths of close to 1,000 golden eagles! The biologist, Lockhart said that because there will be more wind capacity once these projects are built, it will have more of an impact on golden eagles.

The Fish and Wildlife Service are trying to help companies reduce the number of bird deaths. They believe that the final figure will be much lower than expected.

A few companies like Duke Energy, PacifiCorp, and NexEra Energy have already been warned by wildlife officials about killing eagles. These companies had to take steps to prevent further eagle deaths from occurring.

At Duke Energy’s windfarms in Wyoming, a lot of eagles began dying soon after the company signed an agreement that involved them paying one million dollars and not facing any legal charges for the next ten years. Duke Energy says that fewer birds are dying now because of their new camera system which alerts them to the presence of eagles so they can switch off nearby turbines.

PacifiCorp and NextEra, two companies, were punished by the government for killing eagles at their wind farms. PacifiCorp had to pay $2.5 million while NextEra had to pay $8 million in fines and restitution in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Neither of them have said how many eagles they have killed since then.

Three companies got permission to accidentally hurt or kill eagles, as long as they do their best to decrease the number of deaths. This permit was given by wildlife officials and a few Native Americans disagreed with it. This happened in recent years for over twenty wind projects across America.

Last year, even though the Colorado River Indian Tribes were not happy about it, officials approved a special permit for Tucson Electric Power Co. This company has 62 wind turbines in New Mexico. The permit allows them to kill 193 golden eagles over 30 years. Federal officials said this was the only way to make sure that some kind of protection or compensation will be given for these eagle deaths.

The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa People from Minnesota think that the Biden administration should not continue with its plan to make things simpler by getting rid of regulations. Robert Deschampe, Chief of the Chippewa, says that they were not listening when it came to protecting birds’ nests and Indian concerns.

Lakota Hobia, from the Gun Lake Tribe, explained that they were concerned about the implications of disrupting more nests belonging to eagles. Hobia commented that eagles are very important to the tribe and their nest sites should be treated with as much respect as their sacred places and historic artifacts.

Environmental groups asked the White House and energy companies to make it easier to get permits for building wind turbines. A few of the environmentalists said that this was better than allowing companies to hide or ignore when eagles were killed due to their projects.

Steve Holmer, from the American Bird Conservancy, said that some companies have not been asking permission to do things and they have ignored the laws, so this has caused a problem. The Biden administration is facing challenges because they need to help promote renewable energy sources but also protect wild eagles.

Some conservationists argue that the plan isn’t disciplined enough because it lets companies monitor themselves instead of having independent oversight.

According to Eric Glitzenstein from the Center for Biological Diversity, “If you don’t get professional people with knowledge to do the observing, it won’t work well.”

Under President Barack Obama’s second term, more cases of illegal eagle killing were recorded. This was after a lot of wind farms had been built, and an AP investigation revealed many incidents of unauthorised killings; including those that happened at Duke Energy’s Top of the World wind farm.

When President Trump was in office, the number of cases decreased a lot. Companies like oil and gas industry, utilities and other businesses asked for it, so the Republican government changed the law called Migratory Bird Treaty Act which is meant to protect more than 1000 types of birds, including eagles.

After President Biden took office, the number of violations dropped dramatically. In his first year, there were only 49 cases recorded – which is the lowest it has been in ten years. During Trump’s time in office, about 67 violations were reported each year.

However, not all the cases had been counted because a case against a company called NextEra hadn’t finished yet. This particular case involved 150 eagles dying at 50 wind farms since 2010.

At first, officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service said that the drop in migratory bird deaths were due to the Trump government stopping enforcement on accidental bird death laws. But after some time, they took it back because they couldn’t find an exact reason why investigations and violations were falling.

Out of all the cases related to the Eagle Protection Act from 2012 to 2022, only around one out of eight resulted in some sort of punishment. These cases involve harming, killing or disturbing eagle nests and taking away body parts such as feathers of an eagle.

It’s up to the prosecutors if criminal charges are brought, and unfortunately, the Wildlife Service can’t control or decide how much jail time you will get or any other punishments – that’s all decided by the court. spokeswoman Christina Meister said this: “Sometimes there isn’t enough evidence found against someone that would prove that they broke a law.”

Wildlife protectors have long complained about the lack of resources used to enforce laws. The agency’s budget request for 2024 shows that there are very few special agents to do this job and in the next four years, 47 of them will retire.

Over the last 10 years, bald eagles grown in numbers a lot. However, there are only around 40,000 golden eagles left as they need much larger areas than bald eagles to survive and find food. Unfortunately, utilities have been constructing thousands of wind turbines on those same windy plains where golden eagles tend to live which is dangerous for them.

For example, Duke Energy was found guilty of killing 14 golden eagle due to their turbines in Wyoming. Sadly it turns out that over the 5 years after that incident happened, Duke Energy caused another 61 deaths of this species from their turbines.

Since it was opened in 2010, 56 eagles have died at Top of the World. The company did not plan things carefully when they installed the 110 turbines, and they did not think about avoiding the eagle’s territory. Duke has set up a special camera system to detect incoming eagles, and if there is a bird in its way of a turbine, that turbine can be shut down quickly so that the bird does not get chopped by the blades.

Since cameras were installed, eagle deaths have gone down by more than 60%. Even so, it is still hard to avoid them being hurt when they fly in the same area that has spinning blades. This problem would not exist if wind turbines are put in different locations.

Go and follow Matthew Brown (@MatthewBrownAP) and Camille Fassett (@camfassett) on Twitter! Funds from private foundations help the Associated Press (AP) create more coverage on climate and environment. To know more about AP’s new initiative, you can look it up here. All content is owned solely by AP.

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