Federal officials have given a developer the green light to move ahead with a controversial wind project in southeastern Minnesota that, if approved, would be the first time a wind farm has been given permission to legally kill bald eagles.
The proposed New Era Wind Farm would build 48 turbines on about 50-square miles of land in Goodhue County, not far from the Mississippi River. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the area is home to 418 bald eagles.
In a letter to state officials this week, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the developer could apply for a special permit that would allow the project to go ahead while acknowledging that some bald eagles might be killed.
The federal agency says at most, the proposed wind turbines might kill between 8 and 14 bald eagles per year. That's a "worst-case scenario" number, according to Fish and Wildlife Service Field Supervisor Tony Sullins.
He said losing that number of bald eagles would not harm the bird's overall population base.
"Even that worst-case scenario in this local area would not damage the eagle population," Sullins said. "It would not damage the local eagle population, nor would be damage the regional or national population."
Sullins said because of that, the federal agency will now be able to consider the "eagle take permit" application from the project's developers. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, this would be the first such permit in the country. There are currently two other such applications pending from other projects.
The company still has to prove to federal officials it'll comply with various mitigation measures. Some of those include cleaning up roadkill and other tempting targets for eagles to discourage them from flying near the turbines, as well as turning off the turbines when there's a concentration of eagles in the area.
Sullins said if the eagle take permit is approved, it would allow the wind farm to kill a certain number of eagles every year, without penalty. He said it's still unclear what that exact number would be.
"One thing we're pretty confident in, is that it will be less than the [eight to 14] estimate we provided this week," Sullins said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also estimates the risk to golden eagles is low, saying about one or two may be killed over the 30-year life of the project. Golden eagles are less common in Minnesota than bald eagles.
But because there are no permits for killing golden eagles in Minnesota, Sullins said it would be a prosecutable federal offense if one died because of a turbine.
Still, New Era Wind owner Peter Mastic said he welcomes the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to let the application move forward. Mastic declined to comment on tape for this story but said the company has already submitted its eagle take permit application with the federal agency.
Mastic said the turbine project is also pending approval from the state's Public Utilities Commission for an Avian and Bat Protection Plan. And it's waiting for approval from two local townships in Goodhue County.
The project was initially called AWA Goodhue Wind and it's been in the works for more than four years now. It's been met with fierce opposition from residents and neighbors who says turbines don't belong in an area of the state with such a high eagle population.
"If they kill two birds, I think it's a crime," said Steve Groth, who's with the Coalition for Sensible Siting, a group that has long-opposed the wind farm project in southeastern Minnesota.
Groth said he's disappointed with the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to let the company move forward with the application.
"I live out there. There isn't a day that goes by when I don't see several bald eagles in there, about and around my home," Groth said. "How can they estimate the deaths and how many they're going to take?"
The Fish and Wildlife Service is still months away from making its final decision on the project's permit application. And the decision from the state's Public Utilities Commission on the bird and bat protection plan is expected some time mid-to-late February.