Lack of Eagle Permit Throws Caution to the Winds

April 11, 2012 By Marlys Mandaville, Macalester College

Over the next several weeks Minnesota 2020 will run a series of columns focusing on environmental policy issues. This is part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

Minnesota utilities face regulations requiring 25 percent of energy from sustainable resources by 2025 (Goodhue Wind). A project proposed by National Wind may help. In Goodhue County, located in Southern Minnesota, a $179 million dollar project would result in the construction of a 78 MW wind farm made up of 48 wind turbines. The proposed project has received backlash from some environmentalists. Aside from opposition created by the cost, many environmentalists also oppose the project because the building site covers 12,000 acres of land frequented by eagles and bats. Simply saying “no” to the wind farm, as many environmentalists are doing, will not help the state move toward this goal. The wind project should go forward while simultaneous measures are taken to protect eagle populations.

In the past it might have been understandable to not build wind farms in eagle habitat. But now, given that bald eagle populations have risen dramatically, the species was taken off the Endangered Species List in 2007, it is difficult to find sites for wind farms that do not have the potential to harm bald eagles. It is no longer practical or feasible to withhold all wind-farm-building plans due to eagle activity. Rather, given the current growth rate of eagle populations, existing regulations should be implemented to protect these creatures because wind turbine projects will likely affect more and more of them.

It is true that at the Goodhue County site, two rare Golden Eagles have also been spotted, but this is not reason enough to bring the project to a halt. Less than one percent of human-related eagle deaths nation-wide can be attributed to the wind energy industry.

However, in order for National Wind’s Goodhue County wind project to receive a permit to begin construction, it is important that the eagles not be overlooked.

In Oregon, West Butte Wind Power LLC plans to build a new wind farm similar in size to that of Goodhue County’s proposed project. Wind Power is applying for a special permit created by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009. The permit, referred to as an incidental ‘take’ permit, allows for bald and golden eagles to be killed, or ‘taken,’ where they are otherwise protected under the Bald and Golden Eagles Protection Act of 1940. Though this permit may at first appear ominous, it would ultimately prove beneficial to the eagles, as the permit forces any applicant to write a detailed plan of how, given their legal allowance to ‘take’ the eagles, they also plan to conserve the species.

National Wind, the company sponsoring the Goodhue County project, also applied for the permit. (Marcotty). If approved, the permit supports not only the eagles, but also the economic value of National Wind. Without the permit, if the wind turbines harm either eagles or their nests, the company would be subject to federal prosecution—and a potentially costly legal battle.

Though the incidental take permit does not account for potential harm to bats which are also known to frequent the turbine construction area; eagles, at least, would be legally protected. By applying for the permit, Goodhue Wind has promised to take action to conserve both Bald and Golden species of eagle.

Goodhue Wind should obtain the ‘incidental take’ permit as the most feasible compromise between environmentalists on opposing sides of the project. The permit would allow the project to take place while recognizing the presence of local wildlife, and help push Minnesota forward toward renewable energy goals.

Currently, Minnesota Public Utilities Commission faces an appeal of their earlier decision to issue a permit for the project. On February 23rd, Goodhue Wind went before the Public Utilities Commission, where, likely in response to concern expressed by many state wildlife officials and advocating environmentalists, the plan was voted down 2-1. The proposal is now required to revise the wildlife protection plan, and the best possible conservation plan for the eagles should be achieved. I am confident that if Goodhue Wind has a strong wildlife protection plan backing the eagle take permit, it will win the appeal.

Ultimately, the 'incidental take' permit should be issued. Without it, the project might proceed less favorably to the continued the growth of the eagle population. I believe the wind energy created will outweigh costs and likely disturbance of some wildlife in the area. Minnesota must work to increase the amount of energy it obtains from renewable sources—as Minnesota moves forward with renewable energy, please support our energy goals and support wind energy.  

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