Filed Under: U.S.

Winds of change: Wyoming wind farms threaten golden eagle population

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The golden eagle population in the United States is at risk of decline, according to biologists. Some of the greatest threats to these raptors are electrical lines, bullets, cars and wind turbines. While many of these hazards are entrenched in society, wind farms are a recent addition.

“Because this is a new technology and something new on the landscape, we have an opportunity to be proactive and find the best places where we can still harvest renewable energy but still reduce the risk to eagle populations,” said Bryan Bedrosian, director of the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming.

Currently, wind farms are prolific in Wyoming, where golden eagles nest and migrate. While the turbines can present a threat to golden eagles, wind energy provides a number of benefits. Nationwide, it helps avoid 329 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, according to the Department of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. 

“I’m certainly a green energy advocate, but to me it’s worrisome about where we’re putting some of these wind farms because they happen to be in exactly the best places for golden eagles,” biologist Mike Lockhart said.

To mitigate the issue, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers incidental take permits, which allow wind farms to kill a maximum number of birds as an unintended consequence of executing their business. To “take” is to “pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb.” Without a permit, it is illegal to take a golden eagle under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Energy companies with wind farms in the region, like Pacificorp, are also implementing their own mitigation tactics.

“We have, on staff, biologists that help us with tracking migration patterns, bird behavior, and we have personnel at wind sites who are monitoring the activity of birds–particularly golden eagles in Wyoming,” said David Eskelsen, spokesman for Pacificorp. “And they have the authority to stop individual turbines if birds are observed in the area.”

In 2021, 34 take permits on golden eagles were issued nationwide for a total of 170 birds. An Associated Press public records review found that wind farms applied for most of those permits. 

THE GROWING NEED FOR CLEAN ENERGY SOURCES HAS DRASTICALLY CHANGED SOME OF THIS COUNTRY’S WESTERN LANDSCAPES. AS TECHNOLOGIES EMERGED TO CAPTURE THE POWER OF SOLAR AND WIND ENERGY, WIDE SWATHS OF FORMERLY WILD OPEN LAND ARE NOW FILLED WITH THAT INFRASTRUCTURE. BUT WHAT DO WE DO WHEN THE RACE FOR RENEWABLE ENERGY COLLIDES WITH THE CONSERVATION OF PROTECTED WILDLIFE? I WENT TO WYOMING TO FIND OUT HOW GOLDEN EAGLES ARE BEING AFFECTED BY THE INCREASING NUMBER OF WIND FARMS.
I’M CERTAINLY A GREEN ENERGY ADVOCATE BUT TO ME, IT’S WORRISOME ABOUT WHERE WE’RE PUTTING SOME OF THESE WIND FARMS BECAUSE THEY’RE THERE HAPPEN TO BE EXACTLY THE BEST PLACES FOR GOLDEN EAGLES. AND THIS IS PROBABLY AS GOOD A GOLDEN EAGLE HABITAT AS YOU CAN FIND.
BIOLOGIST MIKE LOCKHART KNOWS A LOT ABOUT BIRDS.
I’VE BEEN INTERESTED IN HIM SINCE I WAS A KID AND I ACTUALLY DID MY GRADUATE WORK, YOU KNOW, A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO ON GOLDEN EAGLES,
HE AND HIS SIDEKICK EMMA TRAP AND THEN TRACK EAGLES FOR THE US GEOLOGICAL SURVEY AND CONSERVATION SCIENCE GLOBAL. THEY AGREED TO SHOW US AROUND
THOSE TREES THAT ARE BELOW THAT RIDGE LINE OF HAVE GOT IS A NESTING TERRITORY FOR A PAIR OF GOLDEN’S STUFF THAT WE’RE DOING HERE IN WYOMING IS ALL TIED IN WITH THE WIND DEVELOPMENT. IT’S IT’S LOOKING AT THE RISK ASSESSMENTS OF EXPANDING WIND POWER ON GOLDEN EAGLE POPULATIONS. THIS PARTICULAR WIND FARM IS VERY LIKELY TO IMPACT AT LEAST THREE BREEDING PAIRS. WHICH IS DEVASTATING. REALLY. YOU THERE? THANK YOU.
SO WHEN WE TALK ABOUT WIND TURBINES, HOW ARE THEY THREATENING RAPTORS, AND SPECIFICALLY GOLDEN EAGLES.
SO WIND TURBINES ARE A NEW EMERGING ISSUE FOR GOLDEN EAGLES. AND PARTICULARLY HERE IT HITS HOME REALLY CLOSE IN WYOMING BECAUSE WYOMING HAS SOME OF THE BEST WIND RESOURCES THAT WE HAVE IN THIS COUNTRY. THIS IS A THREAT BECAUSE THE EAGLES ARE DIRECTLY GETTING HIT BY THE TURBINE BLADES. SO THOSE TURBINE BLADES WHILE YOU SEE THEM ON THE HIGHWAY, AND THEY’RE HUGE, AND THEY LOOK LIKE THEY’RE GOING SUPER SLOW. THEY’RE GOING UPWARDS OF 180 MILES AN HOUR AT THE TIPS. REALLY? YEAH. SO WHEN AN EAGLE IMAGINE AN EAGLE WELL, LET’S START WITH THIS. IF YOU’RE SURFING, YOU’RE SURFING A WAVE, YOU KIND OF GET ON THAT WAVE AND THAT WAVE TAKES YOU. YOU KNOW, AS YOU’RE SURFING THROUGH THE WATER, THE EAGLES ARE DOING THE SAME THING. BUT ON WIND. AS THE WIND COMES UP THOSE HILLS, THEY’RE RIDING ON THAT WIND IN IN LOOKING DOWN FOR PREY THEY’RE HUNTING, THEY’VE NEVER IN THE HISTORY OF TIME HAD TO LOOK OVER THEIR SHOULDER. IT’S SOMETHING COMING OUT FROM BEHIND. THEY’RE THE TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN. THEY’RE THE APEX PREDATOR. AND SO NOW YOU HAVE THESE AREAS WITH REALLY HIGH GOOD WINDS THAT THE EAGLES ARE ON. THAT’S THE SAME PLACE THE TURBINES WANT TO BE BECAUSE THAT’S THE WIND THAT’S GOING TO TURN THOSE TURBINES AND GENERATE ENERGY.
WE HEAR QUITE A BIT ABOUT BALD EAGLES AS A NATIONAL SYMBOL. WHY ARE GOLDEN EAGLES IMPORTANT?
BECAUSE THEY’RE AWESOME. ARE YOU KIDDING? GOLDEN EAGLES ARE AMAZING.
YEAH, BALD EAGLES ARE BIG AND SPECTACULAR AND NATIONAL SYMBOL BUT THEY’VE THEY’RE COMPLETELY HABITUATED TO PEOPLE IN COLORADO. THEY’RE NESTING IN PEOPLE’S YARDS OR NESTING ALONG BIKE PATHS.
BALD EAGLES, THE NUMBER ONE SUCCESS STORY OF WILDLIFE CONSERVATION WE HAVE IN NORTH AMERICA. IT’S AWESOME. THEY WENT FROM THE ENDANGERED SPECIES LIST TO NOW PROLIFIC WHERE PEOPLE ARE SEEING THESE BIRDS IN THEIR BACKYARDS. THE COMMON MISCONCEPTION IS EAGLES ARE DOING GREAT. WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT THIS? WELL, THEY’RE TWO COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SPECIES.
THEY’RE VERY VULNERABLE. THERE’S MORE AND MORE SOURCES OF IMPACT ON GOLDEN EAGLES, VEHICLE COLLISIONS, WIRE STRIKES, ELECTROCUTIONS, SHOOTING, POISONING, LEAD POISONING. AND NOW TURBANS.
TO BE CLEAR, TURBINES ARE NOT THE SINGLE GREATEST THREAT TO GOLDEN EAGLES. BUT THEY ARE THE LATEST ON THAT LIST.
BECAUSE THIS IS A NEW TECHNOLOGY AND SOMETHING NEW ON THE LANDSCAPE, WE HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO BE PROACTIVE. THEY’RE ONE OF THE LARGEST RAPTOR SPECIES WE HAVE IN NORTH AMERICA, AND THEY’RE VERY SLOW TO REPRODUCE. ON AVERAGE, THEY’RE GOING TO PRODUCE ONE CHECK EVERY TWO YEARS. SO WHEN YOU HAVE THE SPECIES THAT ARE LONG LIVED AND VERY SLOW TO REPRODUCE ANY ADDITIVE MORTALITY, ESPECIALLY FOR ADULTS THAT ARE BREEDERS, THAT’S WHAT CAUSES THE POPULATIONS TO START TO DECLINE.
IT’S VERY DISTURBING. IT’S GONNA PROBABLY REACH A POINT WHERE THERE’S A POPULATION SINK, LOCAL POPULATION SINK, WELL, WE PROBABLY CAN’T SUSTAIN THE BREEDING EAGLES THAT WE HAD BEFORE. THAT THAT’S A PROBLEM.
THE ONE THING THAT WE THINK EVERYONE HAS TO RECOGNIZE THAT THE GENERATION AND TRANSMISSION OF ELECTRICITY HAS INHERENT ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS.
THAT’S DAVID ESKELSEN. A SPOKESMAN FOR PACIFIC WORK. THE ENERGY COMPANY RUNS A COLA FLATS, A WIND FARM IN MEDICINE BOW,
NO MATTER WHERE FACILITIES ARE LOCATED, THERE ARE GOING TO BE IMPACTS. AND WE DO THE BEST JOB THAT WE CAN, WORKING WITH OUR AGENCY AND REGULATING PARTNERS TO MITIGATE THOSE IMPACTS WHERE POSSIBLE.
SO LET’S TALK MITIGATION. THERE ARE A HANDFUL OF REGULATIONS IN PLACE TO MINIMIZE THE COST TO GOLDEN EAGLES.
ONE OF THE THINGS THAT IS WORKING IS SOME LEVEL OF WHAT WE CALL COMPENSATORY MITIGATION. FOR EXAMPLE, IF A WIND FARM ESTIMATES THEY’RE GOING TO KILL A FEW EAGLES EVERY YEAR FOR THE LIFE OF THE PROJECT, THEY CAN DO MITIGATION OPTIONS TO OFFSET THOSE DEATHS. AND SO RIGHT NOW, THE ONLY WAY TO GIVE BACK IS TO RETROFIT POWER LINES, SO THEY’RE NOT ELECTROCUTED. AND SO WE NEED TO DO THAT MORE.
OTHER COMPANIES ARE USING SPECIALIZED CAMERAS AND OBSERVATION TOWERS. A STUDY IN NORWAY PAINTED ONE BLADE ON EACH TURBINE BLACK, BUT IT’S UNCLEAR EXACTLY HOW EFFECTIVE THESE TACTICS ARE IN WYOMING, PACIFIC HORRIBLE CONDUCT A STUDY TO FIND OUT. TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THAT. IT’S ABOUT THAT WE’RE IN WITH THE NEST RIGHT, NEXT NERVOUS,
RIGHT, THAT WAS THE ONE I WAS TALKING ABOUT THAT WHERE THE MALE GOT KILLED. MESS SITES IN PARTICULAR USED TO BE SACROSANCT FOR THE FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE USED TO BE VERY PROTECTIVE OF THEM. AND THEY’VE CHANGED THE REGULATIONS AND THEY’RE ALLOWING FOR THIS INCIDENTAL TAKE PERMITTING FOR FOR EAGLES.
UNDER THE BALD AND GOLDEN EAGLE PROTECTION ACT, ONE OF THE PROHIBITED ACTIVITIES IS TO TAKE AN EAGLE AND TAKE AS DEFINED AS KILL, SHOOT WOUND HARASS. AND ESSENTIALLY WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT IS IT’S A TAKE IS TO KILL
ENERGY COMPANIES CAN BE PERMITTED TO KILL A CERTAIN NUMBER OF EAGLES PER YEAR, TAKING ANY MORE EAGLES RESULTS IN A FINE.
THE NUMBERS THAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT BEING KILLED BY TURBANS AS BEING ALLOWED. IT’S JUST IT’S INCONCEIVABLE TO ME, I DON’T KNOW HOW THAT EVER GOT TO BE THAT POINT. IT’S BEEN THERE A LONG, LONG TIME. THAT’S A VERY OLD ANCIENT NEST, YOU KNOW, FOR THE TREE. I MEAN, I DON’T KNOW HOW OLD THE TREE IS, BUT IT’S A VERY LARGE NEST.
SIMILAR ACTIVE NESTS ARE SCATTERED THROUGHOUT THE REGION ON THE SAME LAND AS SEVERAL EXISTING AND PROPOSED WIND FARMS.
WE HAVE DATA THAT INDICATES THAT THE AREA WITHIN TWO MILES OF AN ACTIVE GOLDEN EAGLE NEST IS WHERE THE VAST MAJORITY OF THOSE BIRDS ACTIVITY OCCURS. THAT’S WHY WE HAVE A NATIONAL RECOMMENDATION THAT WHEN COMPANIES CITE TURBANS AT LEAST TWO MILES AWAY FROM AN ACTIVE NEST.
IN 2020, A CALL OF FLATS WAS PUMPING OUT MORE THAN 250 MEGAWATTS OF ELECTRICITY. THAT’S ENOUGH TO POWER 76,000 HOMES. ACCORDING TO THE ENERGY INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION, WIND ENERGY ACCOUNTS FOR MORE THAN 9% OF POWER NATIONWIDE, IT HELPS AVOID 329 MILLION METRIC TONS OF CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS A YEAR. THAT MATTERS BECAUSE THE REALITY IS IF THE PLANET WARMS TOO MUCH GOLDEN EAGLES WILL DIE ANYWAY.
YOU KNOW, I HAVE NOT BEEN OPPOSED TO WIND ENERGY DEVELOPMENT IN WYOMING AND STILL AM NOT. BUT AS ITS EVOLVED IN THIS AREA, PARTICULARLY CARBON IN ALBANY COUNTY IN WYOMING, THE INDUSTRIAL FOOTPRINT OF IT’S JUST BECOMING LARGER AND LARGER AND LARGER. I WANT THE FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE TO HAVE MORE SAY IN WHERE THEY CAN BE PLACED IN THE FIRST PLACE.
WHAT KIND OF AUTHORITY DOES THE FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE HAVE OVER WHERE THE TURBINES ARE INSTALLED?
LITTLE TO NO AUTHORITY ACTUALLY, WE CAN MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS TO WHEN COMPANIES BASED ON DATA WE MAY HAVE ON WHERE EAGLES ARE, WHERE MIGRATORY CORRIDORS ARE. AND IT’S UP TO THE DEVELOPER TO TAKE THAT INFORMATION TO HEART AND CITE THEIR THEIR WIND FACILITY ACCORDINGLY.
I DON’T WANT TO PUT ANY MORE TAGS ON THAN I HAVE TO, BUT I THINK THIS DATA IS SO IMPORTANT. HOPEFULLY PEOPLE WILL PAY ATTENTION TO IT AND MAKE SOME SOUND DECISIONS.
ARE ALL OF THESE COLLECTIVE EFFORTS ENOUGH TO SAVE THE GOLDEN EAGLE POPULATION?
IT DEPENDS ON HOW FAST WE GO AND HOW EFFECTIVE THOSE STRATEGIES ARE. TO BE FRANK, EVERYTHING HAS ITS ISSUES, WHETHER IT’S FOSSIL FUELS, COAL OR GREEN ENERGY DEVELOPMENT, EVERYTHING COMES AT A COST. IT’S TRYING TO MINIMIZE THOSE COSTS WHILE MAXIMIZING THE BENEFITS.
THIS WHOLE NETWORK THE BIODIVERSITY THAT’S OUT HERE IS JUST PHENOMENAL. SO YOU START TO LOSE LITTLE, YOU KNOW, ONE OF THOSE SPECIES IS JUST AN INDICATOR OF THE WHOLE THING BEING IMPACTED, ULTIMATELY WILL AFFECT US. DO YOU HAVE HOPE?
OF COURSE I HAVE HOPE IF I DIDN’T HAVE HOPE I WOULDN’T BE DOING THE JOB I AM DOING. ALL I MY WHOLE CAREER IN LIFE IS HOPEFUL THAT WE CAN IDENTIFY AND SOLVE THESE ISSUES.
I WOULDN’T WANT TO LIVE IN A WORLD THAT DOESN’T HAVE GOLDEN NEEDLES PARTICULARLY IN AN AREA LIKE THIS.

The golden eagle population in the United States is at risk of decline, according to biologists. Some of the greatest threats to these raptors are electrical lines, bullets, cars and wind turbines. While many of these hazards are entrenched in society, wind farms are a recent addition.

“Because this is a new technology and something new on the landscape, we have an opportunity to be proactive and find the best places where we can still harvest renewable energy but still reduce the risk to eagle populations,” said Bryan Bedrosian, director of the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming.

Currently, wind farms are prolific in Wyoming, where golden eagles nest and migrate. While the turbines can present a threat to golden eagles, wind energy provides a number of benefits. Nationwide, it helps avoid 329 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, according to the Department of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. 

“I’m certainly a green energy advocate, but to me it’s worrisome about where we’re putting some of these wind farms because they happen to be in exactly the best places for golden eagles,” biologist Mike Lockhart said.

To mitigate the issue, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers incidental take permits, which allow wind farms to kill a maximum number of birds as an unintended consequence of executing their business. To “take” is to “pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, molest or disturb.” Without a permit, it is illegal to take a golden eagle under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Energy companies with wind farms in the region, like Pacificorp, are also implementing their own mitigation tactics.

“We have, on staff, biologists that help us with tracking migration patterns, bird behavior, and we have personnel at wind sites who are monitoring the activity of birds–particularly golden eagles in Wyoming,” said David Eskelsen, spokesman for Pacificorp. “And they have the authority to stop individual turbines if birds are observed in the area.”

In 2021, 34 take permits on golden eagles were issued nationwide for a total of 170 birds. An Associated Press public records review found that wind farms applied for most of those permits. 

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