According to the Endangered Species Coalition, today, May 16, is Endangered Species Day, a day to focus on the challenge of protecting and promoting recovery of threatened and endangered species around the world. In that spirit, we note today the need to minimize the potential conflict between alternative energy sources needed to combat climate change and the potential impacts on threatened and endangered species.
Wind energy has for some time been in potential conflict with migrating birds. In a stunning example, last November a subsidiary of Duke Energy pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) at two of its wind energy projects in Wyoming containing 176 large wind turbines. According to a Department of Justice release, this was the first criminal enforcement of the MBTA in the country for unpermitted bird kills at wind projects.
The bird kill allegedly included 14 golden eagles between 2009 and 2013, along with 149 other protected species, including hawks, blackbirds, larks, wrens and sparrows. The Golden Eagle is not listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, indeed its conservation status is considered secure by NatureServe, but it is protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (16 U.S.C. 668–668d)(“Eagle Act”), which prohibits the take of bald and golden eagles unless under a permit issued pursuant to the Act.
Duke was fined $400,000 which will go to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, will pay $100,000 in restitution to Wyoming, and will perform community service by making a $160,000 payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. They must also contribute $340,000 to a conservation fund for the purchase of land or conservation easements on land containing high-use golden eagle habitat. Finally, they must implement a migratory bird compliance plan during the five years they are placed on probation, and they must apply for a take permit under the Eagle Act, which will hopefully minimize future conflicts.
According to the release, Duke “failed to make all reasonable efforts to build the projects in a way that would avoid the risk of avian deaths by collision with turbine blades, despite prior warnings about this issue from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).” In the plea agreement, Duke “acknowledges that it constructed these wind projects in a manner it knew beforehand would likely result in avian deaths.”
This is a conflict that can and must be minimized. The USFWS has issued guidance on how wind projects can avoid impacts. The Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines were released by USFWS on March 23, 2012, and the Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance in April 2013. There is no reason to hold up well-designed wind energy projects based on conflicts with migratory bird routes.