Criminal cases brought by U.S. wildlife officials for killing or harming protected bald and golden eagles dropped sharply in recent years, even as officials ramped up issuing permits that will allow wind energy companies to kill without legal consequence. The falloff in the enforcement of eagle protection laws, which accelerated in the Trump administration and has continued under President Biden, was clear from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data. The decline comes amid growing concern that an increase in wind turbines because of the growing demand for renewable energy is jeopardizing golden eagle populations already believed to be scarce in some areas. Dozens of permits approved or pending would allow 6,000 eagles to be killed in coming decades, the Associated Press reports. Most permits are for wind farms, and more than half the killed birds would be golden eagles. The significant numbers of eagles continuing to die while fewer criminal cases are pursued underscore a dilemma facing the Biden administration as it combats climate change. Pursuing that goal through clean power development is requiring trade-offs such as more dead birds from collisions with wind turbines with blade tips spinning in excess of 150 miles per hour. “They are rolling over backwards for wind companies,” said Mike Lockhart a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. “I think they are killing a hell of a lot more eagles than they ever anticipated.”
Companies often pledge to perform conservation work to offset the deaths. Some permits include direct payments for dead eagles — about $30,000 per bird. Numerous permits allow the killing of bald eagles with no compensation required. A pending proposal from the Biden administration would streamline permits, making them automatic in some cases as they allow wind-energy projects and power line networks to harm eagles and disturb their nests. Only about one in eight cases brought under the Eagle Protection Act from 2012 to early 2022 resulted in fines, probation, or jail time. Those cases include golden and bald eagles harmed or killed and nest disturbances and the taking of eagle body parts, such as feathers. Whether criminal charges are ultimately brought is up to prosecutors. Fines, jail time, and other punishments are up to the courts and are outside the wildlife service’s control. At some wind farms, companies have relocated turbines or reduced their numbers to minimize deaths. Lockhart said turbines continue to go up in areas frequented by golden eagles, and the cumulative impacts could be disastrous for the birds. “They’re going to more than double the (wind) capacity and in doing that, the impacts on wildlife, particularly golden eagles, are going to be exponentially going up,” Lockhart said.