The Obama administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind farm for killing eagles and other protected bird species, shielding the industry from liability and helping keep the scope of the deaths secret, an Associated Press investigation found.
More than 573,000 birds are killed by the country’s wind farms each year, including 83,000 hunting birds such as hawks, falcons and eagles, according to an estimate published in March in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin.
Each killing of a protected bird is a federal crime, a charge that the Obama administration has used to prosecute oil companies when birds drown in their waste pits, and power companies when birds are electrocuted by their power lines. No wind-energy company has been prosecuted.
The large death toll at wind farms shows how the renewable energy rush comes with its own environmental consequences, trade-offs the Obama administration is willing to make in the name of cleaner energy.
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“It is the rationale that we have to get off of carbon, we have to get off of fossil fuels, that allows them to justify this,” said Tom Dougherty, a longtime environmentalist who worked for nearly 20 years for the National Wildlife Federation in the West. “But at what cost? In this case, the cost is too high.”
Documents and emails obtained by The Associated Press offer glimpses of the problem: 14 deaths at seven facilities in California, five each in New Mexico and Oregon, one in Nevada. In Wyoming, more than four dozen golden eagles have been killed since 2009.
“Each one of those eagles that gets killed is of serious concern to us because of the species’ status in Washington state,” said Jim Watson, a raptor biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Five golden eagles are known to have fallen to wind turbines in Washington over the past several years, he said.
In Washington, where the wind industry is growing rapidly, biologists are most concerned about the impact on threatened ferruginous hawks and golden eagles, which are being considered for listing under state endangered-species laws.
Wind turbines also take a heavy toll on bats. The state’s bat-management plan estimates more than 2,400 were killed in 2011, which makes wind farms the greatest threat to some bat species.
Washington ranks seventh in the nation in terms of capacity to generate power from wind, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Federal statistics show that total wind-power output from the state jumped nearly 30 percent between 2012 and 2013.
Most wind projects comply with voluntary state guidelines to reduce impacts on wildlife, mainly by avoiding areas heavily used by species of concern, said Margen Carlson of
Fish and Wildlife.
When companies voluntarily report deaths, the Obama administration in many cases refuses to make the information public, saying it belongs to the energy companies or would expose trade secrets or implicate enforcement investigations.
“What it boils down to is this: If you electrocute an eagle, that is bad, but if you chop it to pieces, that is OK,” said Tim Eicher, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement agent.
The wind-energy industry points out that more eagles are killed each year by cars, electrocutions and poisoning than by turbines.
Times reporter Sandi Doughton contributed to this report.