By James Eng, msnbc.com
The federal government is proposing to grant a first-of-its-kind permit that would allow the developer of a central Oregon wind-power project to legally kill golden eagles, a regulatory move being closely watched by conservationists.
The Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday released a draft environmental assessment that would allow West Butte Wind Power LLC to kill as many as three protected golden eagles over five years if the company fulfills its conservation commitments.
It’s the first eagle “take permit” application to be received and acted on by U.S. Fish and Wildlife under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. (“Take” means to kill, harass or disturb the birds, their nests or their eggs.)
The legislation, enacted in 1940, prohibits anyone from killing or disturbing any bald or golden eagles without a permit from the Interior Department.
Regulations adopted in 2009 enabled the agency to authorize, for the first time, the “take” of eagles for activities that are otherwise lawful but that result in either disturbance or death. In this case "taking" would be the killing of eagles hit by the wind turbines' huge blades.
Public comments on the draft environmental assessment of the Wind Butte project will be accepted until Feb. 2.
The permit, if ultimately issued, stipulates that there must be no net loss to breeding populations of golden eagles from the wind farm project. That means for every protected bird permitted killed, developers must contribute to conservation efforts for breeding them.
“Our goal is to maintain stable or increasing populations of eagles protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act," said Chris McKay, assistant regional director for Migratory Birds and State Programs in the Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Region.
"Regulations under the Act allow us to issue permits for activities that are likely to take eagles provided the activity is otherwise lawful and the taking is not the purpose of that activity, the take is unavoidable even though advanced conservation practices are being implemented, and the take is compatible with eagle preservation," McKay said in a press release.
California-based West Butte Wind Power LLC is proposing to build a 104-megawatt wind energy generation facility on ranchland in Oregon’s Deschutes and Crook counties, consisting of up to 52 wind turbines. Electricity generated by the project could power as many as 50,000 homes.
Conservation groups expressed cautious optimism at the government’s proposal to award the eagle take permit.
“This is a type of project where it’s appropriate for them to issue this kind of permit,” said Liz Nysson, energy policy coordinator with the Oregon Natural Desert Association She noted that only a small number of golden eagles are believed to be in and around the area where the wind turbines will be built.
“I say ‘cautious optimism’ because we fear that the agency is going to go forward and start issuing these permits … for a multitude of golden eagles every year, and that would be a bad use of the policy,” Nysson said.
It's not mandatory for wind-power projects to apply for the eagle "take" permits.
Kelly Fuller, wind campaign coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy, praised West Butte for being the first company to apply for one. She described the latest development as “precedent-setting,” according to the Governors’ Wind Energy Coalition, a bipartisan group of the nation’s governors dedicated to expanding the development of wind energy.
Fuller said the eagle permit process gives conservationists more opportunity to participate in the development process.
She said the conservancy group will ask Fish and Wildlife to extend its public comment period an additional 30 days beyond the Feb. 2 deadline, according to the Wind Energy Coalition.