A controversial wind farm proposed near the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina could kill up to 20 bald eagles a year, according to a preliminary estimate by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The estimate is based on just five months of bird counts in Beaufort County and could prove abnormally high, regulators say. Bald eagles are active in the largely agricultural area in Beaufort County where the wind farm would be built, drawn to the presence of fish breeding ponds, hog carcass disposals and other readily available food sources.
Still, eagle fatalities present an unforeseen challenge for Invenergy, the Chicago-based developer proposing the 49-turbine Pantego Wind Energy Facility. The project has already aroused public concern because of its potential risk to thousands of migratory snowbirds that visit the state every year.
The preliminary numbers on bald eagle kills are astronomical by almost any measure, bird advocates say. Based on recorded bald eagle sightings in the area, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the Pantego project would account for 3.4 to 20.7 eagle "takes" annually.
“That’s a shocking number,” said Kelly Fuller, wind campaign coordinator at the American Bird Conservancy in Washington. “Even if we look at the low number, killing four bald eagles a year would be killing more than the current acknowledged eagle deaths of all U.S. wind farms combined for the whole history of the U.S. wind industry.”
North American wind farms had caused four deaths and one injury as of last year, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Invenergy remains committed to developing its wind farm, with construction slated to begin next year, said David Groberg, the company’s vice president for business development. Invenergy is collecting more data and analyzing options to minimize harm to wildlife, he said.
The preliminary eagle kill estimates were released last week to the Southern Environmental Law Center, a Chapel Hill nonprofit that opposes the proposed location of the wind farm and had submitted a data request to the feds.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is taking the position that the preliminary data is inconclusive and the death estimates could be a fluke.
“They really don’t tell us much,” said Pete Benjamin, the agency’s Raleigh field office supervisor. “We’ve asked them to continue to collect data through at least the full year and hopefully longer.”
The Pantego wind farm, planned on 11,000 acres of farmland, was approved in March by the N.C. Utilities Commission, but on the condition that Invenergy prepare an avian mitigation plan to minimize bird accidents and report any eagle injury or kill within 48 hours. The ongoing bird counts are part of Invenergy’s attempt to prepare the mitigation plan.
One option open to the company is to apply for a federal permit that would allow a set number of bald eagle kills. Such a permit would absolve the wind farm of violating the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, as long as the eagle kills don’t exceed the permitted amount.
Federal law prohibits the killing of bald eagles, a protected species that was removed from the U.S. endangered list just five years ago.
The proposed West Butte wind farm in Oregon would result in an estimated 0.56 to 1.48 collisions a year, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering issuing a permit to “take” up to three eagles every five years.
In the language of the Fish and Wildlife Service, a “take” means kill, disturb, molest, trap, shoot, capture and pursue, but in the context of wind farms it generally refers to bald eagles flying into spinning blades or eagles being displaced by loss of habitat.
Bald eagles had disappeared altogether from North Carolina but were reintroduced three decades ago and today are believed to number at about 200 nesting pairs, said David Allen, coastal region wildlife diversity supervisor for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Invenergy reported about 10 bald eagle nests located less than 5 miles from the site of the proposed Pantego wind farm.
Allen said the preliminary data on eagle kills could be skewed by the high number of sightings of eagles feeding near a hog carcass disposal area. Those counts may not represent the general eagle population of the region, he said.