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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.

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. 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.

“We have 45,000 wind turbines in this country, and in the past 30 years we only know of a handful of 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.

“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.

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