Adjusting for Wind: USFW Extends Term for Eagle Take Permits

Posted on August 7, 2014 by LeAnne Burnett

Developing wind energy is a good thing, right?  Protecting eagles is too, isn’t it?  Both may not  be true given recent developments that highlight the tension between wind projects and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. 

First, it is official.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) issued a final rule to extend the maximum term for programmatic “take” permits under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (“Eagle Act”) from five to thirty years.  [50 C.F.R. § 22.26.The rule took effect on January 8, 2014.  

With the removal in 2007 of the bald eagle from the list of species protected under the Endangered Species Act, the FWS issued new regulations to authorize the limited take of bald eagles and golden eagles under the Eagle Act.  In 2009 the FWS provided for eagle take permits for a maximum of five years.  [50 C.F.R. 22.26 and 22.27.]  The rule change to allow a 30-year permit is designed to facilitate development of renewable energy projects planned to operate for decades.  Generally the life of a project will coincide with the life of a 30-year permit, satisfying risk-averse financiers that their collateral is protected, at least with regard to eagle takes. 

The FWS committed to 5-year reviews of the 30-year permit, hoping to satisfy those concerned with eagle conservation. In addition, a permit applicant must implement measures to avoid, minimize, and mitigate threats to eagles over the life of the project. Compensatory mitigation that offsets eagle mortality may also be required. Under programmatic eagle take permits, permittees are required to implement advanced conservation practices -- scientifically supportable measures that represent the best available techniques to reduce eagle disturbance and ongoing mortalities. 

There is no legal requirement for project developers or operators to obtain a programmatic eagle take permit under the Eagle Act.  However, the risk of proceeding without such a permit can be significant given the civil and criminal penalties that include fines and incarceration for an unpermitted take.  [16 U.S.C. § 668(a).] 

Second, it is official.  The American Bird Conservancy made good on its threat [April 30, 2014 Letter] to litigate the issue of the 30-year rule with the FWS [June 19, 2014 Complaint].  The claims are procedural -- that the FWS deemed the rule to be excluded from any National Environmental Policy Act review, and that the FWS privileged the interests of wind developers over protection of eagles, thereby violating the Eagle Act.  The FWS has strong defenses, including its conclusion in 2009 that the eagle take permitting rule as a whole would not have any impact on endangered species.  That conclusion will likely be approved under the deferential standard of review applicable in this type of lawsuit.

Third, it is official.  The FWS issued its first golden eagle take permit to a wind developer, EDF Renewable Energy for the 102.5MW Shiloh 4 wind farm in Montezuma Hills Wind Resource Area within Solano County, California. The EDF eagle take permit is the first of its kind, allows for the take of up to five golden eagles over five years, and requires the company to implement conservation measures to reduce impacts to eagles.  EDF’s application process for its eagle take permit began in 2011, when the five-year permit was the only available option.  The application included an Eagle Conservation Plan, as well as a Bird and Bat Conservation Strategy, both of which describe current and proposed future actions to avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse effects on eagles, birds, and bats.  The wind farm repowered at the end of 2012, and was able to incorporate some of those strategies, including compensatory retrofitting of 133 power poles in southern Monterey County formerly considered high risk to both bald and golden eagles. 

The first-issued five-year permit notwithstanding, a longer permit timeframe for wind developers may be important to long-term success, providing certainty as to regulations and permit requirements.  And take permits that call for affirmative conservation practices allow the FWS to ensure adequate species protection over the lifetime of the permit.  It’s a good thing, right?