Legal Eagles: USFWS hosts eagle-take permit info session

Mike Moore photo
A bald eagle scans the horizon for its next meal along a river in northwest Wyoming. sPower is in the process of acquiring Wyoming’s first Eagle Take Permit from the USFWS for Pioneer Wind Park, 6 miles south of Glenrock. 

Colin Tiernan

Pioneer Wind Park is on track to acquire the first Eagle Take Permit for a Wyoming wind farm.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials put on an information session for an Eagle Take Permit at the Glenrock Public Library Oct. 16. sPower, which owns the wind farm, also had representatives in attendance. 
“It’s a big deal because it provides a company with legal protections if they incidentally take (kill) an eagle in the operation of their wind park,” said Brian Smith, USFWS Acting Assistant Regional Director for Region 6’s Migratory Birds and Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program.
Smith said that the permit, and the process leading up to it, should help minimize eagle deaths, and initiate compensatory mitigation in the event of deaths.
In order to get the permit, which costs $36,000 and lasts five years, San Francisco-based sPower had to work with the USFWS to gather baseline information on eagle populations. The USFWS wrote a draft Environmental Assessment for the permit, which is now open for public comment. sPower cannot receive approval for the permit until the EA is complete.
sPower representatives said that applying for the permit is part of running a wildlife friendly wind farm at the 46-turbine, 80 megawatt, 28,000 acre Pioneer Park, south of Glenrock.
“It’s part of being a responsible citizen,” sPower director and permitting specialist Korina Cassidy said.

An Eagle Take Permit doesn’t allow sPower to kill extra eagles. Nor does it mean that sPower has to radically alter Pioneer Park in order to ensure fewer deaths – in reality, most of the measures taken to prevent eagle deaths occurred before the project was built. For instance, after looking at eagle flight patterns, the USFWS recommended that sPower reduce the number of turbines at Pioneer Park. sPower cut 14 turbines from the project following that recommendation, according to USFWS Wildlife Biologist Kevin Kritz.
The permit helps companies like sPower avoid breaking federal laws. Per a USFWS poster at the event, “Wind project operators are not legally required to seek or obtain an Eagle Take Permit; however, the take of an eagle without a permit is a violation of Eagle Act and could result in persecution.”
Without a permit, killing eagles is illegal. Companies can be fined for killing eagles, although fines are rare, and companies self-report eagle deaths. Duke Energy, which runs Top of the World near Rolling Hills, became the first company to face criminal prosecution for eagle deaths back in 2013 when they pleaded guilty to killing 14 golden eagles.
At Pioneer Park, the USFWS has estimated one bald eagle kill during the five-year life of the permit and five golden eagle kills according to Kritz.  If more than five golden eagles die at the park during that time – there are no penalties for killing more than one bald eagle – sPower will be required to complete compensatory mitigation. In this instance, the first mitigation measure would be power pole retrofits. Some power lines are designed in such a way that by landing on them, a bird completes an electrical circuit and is electrocuted.
The USFWS’ goal is to allow between 1 and 5 percent take. In other words, if 100 golden eagles pass through the wind farm, the USFWS deems five deaths acceptable.
Kritz said that the USFWS’ goal is to keep nationwide eagle populations stable, and considers that when arriving at take allowances.
“We can’t end up with a deficit,” he said.
According to USFWS counts, 30 birds were killed at Pioneer Wind Park between Nov. 2016 and Oct. 2017. Pioneer Park was harder on bats according to the USFWS, with 72 fatalies during that time.
Some believe that USFWS estimates are drastically lower than the actual numbers. Steve Weber said that wind farms typically kill hundreds of eagles per year, and formal surveys don’t arrive at those figures because predators like coyotes remove and eat the carcasses when the birds die. The counts, which rely on tallying carcasses, are too infrequent to calculate the real numbers, Weber said.
“These wind farms kill great big blocks of eagles,” Weber said. “I consider Converse County an ecological disaster area.”
If you wish to comment on the project, email the USFWS at or send written comments to the Denver USFWS district office, Attn: Brian Smith P.O. Box 25486 DFC, Denver, CO 80225. The last day for public comment is Oct. 29.


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