Feds finalize eagle death permit rule

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The Interior Department on Friday unveiled a final rule extending the length of permits that allow facilities to unintentionally kill protected bald and golden eagles.

The regulations are a major victory for the wind and solar industry, among others, which will now be able to obtain permits for as long as 30 years — a sixfold increase from the previous five-year limit.

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“This change will facilitate the responsible development of renewable energy and other projects designed to operate for decades, while continuing to protect eagles consistent with our statutory mandates,” the department said in its regulation.

The wind energy industry has been a vocal supporter of the longer permits. Industry officials had met with White House and Interior Department officials at least two times in the weeks and months leading up to the rule’s release.

According to the administration, the permit extension was necessary “to better correspond to the operational timeframe of renewable energy projects.”

Wildlife conservation activists, who had also lobbied on the regulation, had opposed the change in the permitting rules. They say that the science has not conclusively proven the best way to protect the eagles, and the permitting process needs to be reevaluated.

In a statement sent to The Hill, the president of the National Audubon Society, David Yarnold, said that the administration “wrote the wind industry a blank check,” and indicated that a court challenge court be in the works.

“We have no choice but to challenge this decision, and all options are on the table,” he added.

Thousands of birds are killed every year by wind turbines, power lines and other large structures, though it’s impossible to know how many are protected eagles. The birds often scan the ground below but ignore the looming metal buildings.

The Interior Department hands out permits allowing developers to unintentionally kill a small number of the birds, as long as they implement “advanced conservation practices” to reduce the number of deaths.

The new rule requires that longer permits incorporate “additional measures that may be necessary to ensure the preservation of eagles,” if necessary.

In a statement, the American Wind Energy Association said that the longer permits would help protect more eagles.

“By undertaking these efforts it is expected that the permit program will provide for the long-term conservation of eagle populations by not only addressing the permitted activity but also the impacts of others already occurring in the landscape today,” it said.

The organization said that the longer permits will allow for more advanced conservation efforts and are more similar to permits for unintentionally disturbing or killing protected animals under the Endangered Species Act, which can last for up to 60 years.  

Republicans can have accused the Obama administration of being too friendly to the wind energy industry, which has prospered while the president has been in office.

Last month, Duke Energy reached a $1 million settlement with federal officials for the deaths of 14 golden eagles and 149 other protected birds over the last three years. It was the first time that the administration has penalized a wind energy company for killing eagles.  

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