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Letter from wildlife groups says federal eagle permit rule gives wind developers ‘license to kill’

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Concerned about the bald eagle population that nests along the St. Lawrence River, three conservation groups have joined together to oppose a federal rule allowing wind turbine operators to have a 30-year license to kill or injure the birds without penalty.

Save the River and 1000 Islands Land Trust, both of Clayton, and the Algonquin to Adirondacks Collaborative of Ontario endorsed a Feb. 18 letter sent to the U.S. Department of Interior that urges the agency to withdraw its rule approved last December. The federal agency decided to extend the lifespan of what are known as “eagle take permits” from five to 30 years.

Those permits enable turbine operators to accidentally kill a limited number of birds without penalty under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Permits require companies to take initiatives to protect birds and specify how many may be legally killed.

The purpose of the rule change, which was pushed by the wind industry, was to aid investor confidence in the long-term viability of wind farm projects.

Written by Save the River executive director D. Lee Willbanks, the letter from environmental groups against the federal rule change states that although encouraging renewable energy is important to the nation’s future, that mission shouldn’t come at the cost endangering eagles.

“We do not agree with your assertion that extending the period during which it is permissible to kill eagles and making the permitted entity — wind project owners — responsible for self-reporting kills is the right way to develop any project, much less renewable energy,” the letter reads. “We simply cannot support trading species protection for energy development.”

The upper St. Lawrence River Valley is home to a variety of winter raptors, including a burgeoning number of over-wintering bald eagles, the letter informs the Department of Interior. The northeastern part of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River is an important migratory flyway for a vast number of waterfowl and songbird species that travel to and from northern breeding grounds.

Ongoing efforts made by state agencies and cooperation between environmental groups have fostered the nesting of bald eagles in the region, but “massive industrial scale wind farms” have become a threat, and developers have been “less than forthcoming and cooperative on a range of environmental and conservation issues,” according to the letter.

“The Department’s thirty year permit provision will likely become a ‘license to kill’ these majestic and iconic birds,” Mr. Willbanks wrote. “We urge the Department to withdraw this rule and develop measures that will ensure meaningful, enforceable protections for eagles.”

Gradually, the bald eagle population in the north country and across the state has climbed 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.

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

View the letter online at http://wdt.me/YqCFyJ.

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