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US proposal would allow eagles to die as renewables expand

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Biden administration on Thursday proposed a new permitting program for wind turbines, power lines and other projects that kill eagles, amid growing concern among scientists that the rapid expansion of renewable energy in western US golden eagle populations are now teetering on the decline.

The Fish and Wildlife Service program announced Thursday is intended to encourage businesses to work with officials to minimize harm to golden and bald eagles.

It also aims to prevent any slowdown in the growth of wind power as an alternative to carbon-emitting fossil fuels, a key piece of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda. It comes after several major utilities have been prosecuted by the federal government in recent years for killing large numbers of eagles without permits.

The federal government already issues permits to kill eagles. But Thursday’s proposal calls for new permits tailored to wind energy projects, power line networks and the disturbance of breeding bald eagles and bald eagle nests.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams said the new program would provide “multiple pathways to a permit” while also helping conserve eagles, which she described as a key responsibility for the agency.

Bald eagle numbers have quadrupled since 2009 to about 350,000 birds. There are only about 40,000 golden eagles, which need much larger areas to survive and are more likely to get into trouble with humans.

The number of wind turbines across the country more than doubled over the past decade to nearly 72,000, according to data from the US Geological Survey, with development overlapping the golden eagle’s prime territory in states like Wyoming, Montana, California, Washington and Oregon.

In April, a subsidiary of Florida-based utility industry giant NextEra Energy pleaded guilty in federal court in Wyoming to criminal violations of wildlife protection laws after its wind turbines killed over 100 golden eagles in eight states. It was the third conviction of a major wind company for killing eagles in a decade.

Federal officials will not disclose how many eagles are reported killed by wind farms, saying it is confidential law enforcement information.

Nationwide, 34 permits in place last year authorized companies to “take” 170 golden eagles, meaning many birds could be killed by turbines or lost to nest or habitat impacts, according to data from permissions obtained by The Associated Press. According to the data, more than 200 permits had been granted to allow the slaughter of 420 bald eagles.

For every loss, companies are responsible for ensuring that at least one eagle death is prevented elsewhere.

Illegal shootings are the leading cause of death for golden eagles, killing about 700 a year, according to federal estimates. More than 600 die annually in collisions with cars, wind turbines, and power lines; about 500 are electrocuted annually; and more than 400 are poisoned.

However, climate change looms as a potentially greater threat: Rising temperatures are projected to reduce golden eagle breeding ranges by more than 40% by the end of this century, according to an analysis by the National Audubon Society. .

“Birds are telling us that climate change is the biggest threat they face,” said Garry George, director of the National Audubon Society’s Clean Energy Initiative. If executed responsibly, he said the new program could strengthen protections for eagles as renewable energy expands.

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Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

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