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New permits for turbines allow wind farms to kill eagles up to 30 years

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In a move wildlife conservationists fear could endanger the growing population of bald eagles that nest along the St. Lawrence River, a federal rule relaxed in December allows wind turbine operators to kill or injure the birds for up to 30 years without penalty.

Pushed by the wind industry to aid investor confidence in wind farm projects, the rule change approved by the U.S. Department of Interior extends the lifespan of what are known as “eagle take permits” from five to 30 years. Permits enable transmission operators, power producers and other industries to accidentally kill a limited number of birds without penalty under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act; they require companies to take steps to protect the birds and specify how many may be killed on a case-by-case basis.

Before the rule change, wind turbine operators located within a 43-mile radius of bald eagle nesting areas, and within 140 miles of golden eagle nests, were required to obtain new permits every five years from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The loosened law means operators now may hold permits without any major challenges for 30 years. Fish and Wildlife will review permits every five years to ensure they meet conditions, and operators are expected to report any problems.

Gerald A. Smith, a Barnes Corners resident who serves as vice president of the Onondaga Audubon Society, said the rule change has nettled conservationists and ornithologists in the region who have led efforts to protect raptors and other birds along eastern Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The society represents 10 counties across the region, including Jefferson and Lewis counties.

“It’s basically greed on the part of the wind industry to supposedly get stable investment conditions,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s really a cave on the part of the Obama administration to extremely bad environmental management. Wind energy is renewable, but it’s not ‘green’ if it’s killing eagles, birds and bats, and there is strong evidence that it does.”

It now will be up to the local environmental communities to fight for tighter regulations on eagle take permits when wind developers plan projects in the region, Mr. Smith said. The 30-year renewal law may be amended on a case-by-case basis so that wind developers have to renew permits sooner if it’s deemed warranted by Fish and Wildlife, he said.

“The rule allows for regulations in chunks of a five-year minimum, if that should be decided on for every wind project near the Great Lakes” where bald eagles nest, he said. “There should be no 30-year permits allowed.”

Robert Burke, director of operations at Maple Ridge Wind Farm, based on the Tug Hill in Lowville, did not return a call Wednesday seeking bird and raptor mortality data from the site. which became operational January 2006. Its farm includes 195 1.65-megawatt wind turbines that are 260 feet tall.

Planned wind power projects in the north country have often intruded on flyways for raptors and other birds near water bodies, because those areas are conducive to wind power, Mr. Smith said. As a case in point, he referred to the project planned by BP Wind Power in the towns of Cape Vincent and Lyme. Compared with 10 years ago, he said, the number of bald eagles in northwestern Jefferson County has grown significantly.

Because of the windy region near Lake Ontario, BP “has chosen to put turbines that close to migration routes that are documented” in Cape Vincent, Mr. Smith said. “The towns of Cape Vincent and Lyme are a wintering area for a number of raptors, including bald eagles. There are a tremendous amount of issues (affecting birds and bats) caused by wind projects along the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes, and this (eagle rule) would only be one more.”

The American Wind Energy Association lauded the federal rule change for eagle take permits, contending the decision will create a greater degree of longer-term legal and financial certainty for wind energy companies. An Associated Press story said that requirements to obtain eagle take permits include multiple years of pre- and post-construction monitoring and changing the design of projects at the request of Fish and Wildlife. Wind developers will be required to invest in conservation efforts when projects are near bald or golden eagle populations.

“We have 45,000 wind turbines in this country, and in the past 30 years we only know of a handful of bald eagles that have struck these turbines,” said Peter L. Kelley, Wind Energy Association vice president of public affairs. These permits “will require wind developers to make a long-term commitment to maintain eagle conservation, or they’ll lose them. You’ll have to show you are providing more protections for eagles (to acquire permits) and have to go through five-year checkups after that.

The wind industry’s estimate of bird kills has been challenged repeatedly by environmentalists, who have faulted both the results and the manner of kill reporting.

Wildlife conservation groups have voiced opposition to the rule change, but at the same time they support wind energy as a renewable source that will help address the future risk of climate change, Mr. Kelley said.

Lee H. Harper, a Massena ornithologist, said the number of bald eagles that have established nesting sites in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties along the St. Lawrence River has grown in recent years. Within 15 miles of his Massena residence, for example, four nesting sites have been established in the past five to 10 years.

Mr. Harper is concerned about how the relaxed federal eagle take permits could be detrimental to those birds over the long term by making the region more attractive to wind developers.

“The rule change could set back eagle restoration efforts if wind farm oversight is not sufficient to address eagle mortality at wind farms where the potential impact is high,” he said. “While the burden to obtain these permits is high for both the agency and the wind industry, I think both parties understand the importance of eagle restoration and conservation, and the need to continue to work together to appropriately site wind farms in Northern New York.”

The bald eagle population in the north country and across the state has climbed steadily over the past three decades, according to statistics from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Today, about 100 bald eagles migrate south from Canada to winter along the St. Lawrence River and surrounding area, where the population is stable, said Stephen W. Litwhiler, DEC spokesman for Region 6. A 2010 study conducted by DEC found nine nesting territories in St. Lawrence County, three in Jefferson County, none in Lewis County and 10 in Franklin County.

“The St. Lawrence River is open during the winter and gives them a place to feed on the open water,” Mr. Litwhiler said, adding that the raptors feed on fish and deer carcasses.

In 1980, only 36 bald eagles were observed by the DEC during its annual winter survey; results from the most recent survey in 2010 found a total of 658. Only eight eagles were observed on the St. Lawrence River in 1980; in 2010, a total of 96 were found.

The golden eagle population, by contrast, is almost nonexistent across the state. Fewer than 10 eagles have been observed by DEC every year since 1980.

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