READER'S EDITORIAL: HARVESTING EAGLES - PART TWO

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How agencies charged with protecting our wildlife continue to betray our trust

By Jim Wiegand

June 13, 2016 (San Diego) - It is difficult to read that word “harvest” without thinking of harvesting crops, grown for the purpose of feeding humanity. In this case, however, we are talking about one of our most iconic species, one of our most magnificent raptors – and the “harvesting” is to be done by “grim reaper” machines: wind turbines.

They supply some of our most expensive, unreliable and heavily subsidized electricity, under blanket exemptions from an Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws that are applied with unflinching severity to virtually all industries except wind energy. That we have such blatant double standards is a monumental travesty.

This map of the United States and Canada shows the Bird Conservation Regions (BCRs) and corresponding Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (DPEIS) golden eagle population estimates that were used to compute the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed annual eagle “harvest.”

Computing the proposed FWS annual eagle “harvest”

These FWS golden eagle population estimates are demonstrably false – perhaps deliberately so. Multiple problems, discrepancies and delusions surround the estimates. In fact, there are far too many problems to list in this short article. I will thus touch on only a few.

First, California does not have a golden eagle population of approximately 1,000-1,200 birds. If that were the case, there would be yearly records for about 200-250 adult-occupied nesting territories producing young. As it is, the State of California, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and USFWS cannot even document that there are a mere 100 of these productive nesting territories.  However, these agencies do know of hundreds of empty golden eagle nests and abandoned eagle territories in California.

Contrary to DPEIS assertions, there are not 5,122 golden eagles living in the Eastern USA; there are not even 5,122 golden eagles living to the north in Eastern Canada. In the Eastern USA, this species is a rare winter resident and, to the best of my knowledge, there has not been a single reported case of a golden eagle nesting East of the Mississippi River for decades.

There is just no credible research anywhere to support such numbers, and this eastern North America population is probably limited to just a few hundred pairs living in Eastern Canada.

Since most of the golden eagles living in Eastern Canada migrate, these eagles cannot possibly be in two places at the same time. Either the FWS estimates show winter residency numbers for a non-existent nesting population or they were just made up.  This could be true for all the DPEIS eagle population estimates given, because none of them are close to reality.

The number of carcasses shipped annually to the Denver Repository also supports my assessment of this eastern population of Golden Eagles.  From the repository records I have, the western US is shipping more than 20 times more golden eagle carcasses to Denver than the eastern states are, even though there are far more transmission lines, vehicle traffic and people in the East.

The DPEIS golden eagle population for Alaska is reported to be 4,091 – and yet a few years ago, before the rapid expansion of wind energy developments along their southern migration routes (FWS region 6), this northern eagle population was listed at 2,077 birds

My eagle population estimates for BCR Management units 9, 10, 16 and 17 concludes that there are now 1,500-2,000 nesting pairs of golden eagles in this area. This estimate is based upon known golden eagle nesting densities, habitat type, human disturbances, precipitation, elevation, food sources and my on the ground knowledge of this vast region.

Yet the DPEIS golden eagle population estimated for these four BCR units is an astounding 26,366. This population estimate did not take into consideration any of the principles, skill sets and wildlife training that I used for my estimate. Instead, it is based on a computer “model that integrated data from late summer aerial transect surveys.” Aerial transect surveys are easy to rig and, as I pointed out six years ago, they can also easily collect highly flawed data.

But the elephant in the room here is that the public is supposed to believe golden eagle population survey results from a company that has a history of underreporting wind turbine mortality, using nonscientific studies going back two decades, and providing that information to the FWS. Now these same people want us to believe there is a golden eagle population 6.5 times larger than in all of Alaska, living in a multi- state region about the same size as Alaska. It is absurd, and it is not true.

Even more absurd is that the FWS DPEIS claims that 1,000 more golden eagles live in the Eastern US than in all of Alaska.

I hope the public understands that these false claims about our disappearing golden eagles are rapidly leading to their extermination. By claiming that golden eagle populations are 5-10 times higher than they actually are – without employing any honest, accurate studies of eagle populations – these Fish and Wildlife Service lies will allow ten times more turbines to be built, and ten times more eagles to be killed.

While there is much more wrong about this latest FWS report, I hope it is crystal clear to everyone that creating a vast imaginary population of eagles, avoiding true scientific research, falsely calculating an enormous, supposedly “sustainable” yearly harvest rate, and deliberately ignoring the huge eagle slaughter taking place around the wind farms really is fraud. The perpetrators should be prosecuted.

Having said that, amid this false eagle slaughtering assessment, the FWS defines “local area population” as: “the bald or golden eagle population within the area of a human activity or project bounded by the natal dispersal distance for the respective species.”

This slimy language conveniently allows the FWS, California wildlife department and wind industry to completely ignore the carnage taking place around wind projects placed in eagle habitats. These agencies all know that eagles disperse or migrate seasonally, so that eagle dispersal covers thousands of miles.

A 2007 National Academy of Sciences report to Congress on wind turbine impacts noted that “Bird displacement associated with wind-energy development has received little attention in the United States.” This statement was true then, and it is even truer today. 

For example, this 2007 NAS report also stated that 58 nesting eagle territories were occupied in 2005 within 30 km (19miles) of the Altamont Wind Resource Area. However, this information is 11 years old, and even in 2012 proof was available that these 58 occupied eagle territories no longer existed.

Today in the Altamont Region, I would be very surprised if even a third of these originally reported 58 active golden eagle territories (occupied by two adults) remain.

An agency and industry blackout on honesty

In this Altamont region, there has been a complete blackout pertaining to golden eagle nesting activity and nesting failures that have caused by wind turbines killing adult eagles during their nesting cycles. I know this from conversations with an eyewitness and from analyzing vague references in industry studies of nests described as “unsuccessful” or “non-active.”

Nothing about this devastating wind turbine mortality has ever been revealed or documented by the wind industry or the FWS. 

In the case of bird displacement, the industry and wildlife agencies have avoided turbine impact studies of raptor populations for decades. This deliberate failure has been for the same reason that the public knows nothing about all the eagle carcasses sent to the Denver repository: like the repository data, nesting information would incriminate the wind energy industry and reveal the massive destruction it is inflicting on our nation’s wildlife.                                                                  

For years the media, wind industry and FWS have claimed that the Altamont region has one of the highest, if not the highest, known concentration of golden eagles in the world. If the FWS looked again at this eagle population – using scientific principles, instead of fake abstract data – it would find that most of these eagles have disappeared.

Under the new proposal, companies would pay a $36,000 fee for a long-term permit allowing them to kill or injure eagles. These companies would also have to commit to additional measures if they kill or injure more eagles than estimated, or if new information suggests eagle populations are declining markedly.

Think about the obvious here. An honest, ethical proposal regarding “additional measures” would include funding for real studies around wind projects, showing current eagle nesting densities, nesting success rates, fledging rates, nesting failures and, most importantly, complete eagle territory abandonment.  An honest and ethical eagle harvest proposal would also include significant fines – and back payments for the thousands of eagles that wind turbine companies have already killed without permits to do so.

Any non-Indian even possessing a single bald eagle feather – even one found lying on the ground, and even one killed by a wind turbine – can be fined $5,000 and sentenced to a year in jail. The 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act also prohibits “pursuing, shooting, shooting at, poisoning, wounding, killing, capturing, trapping, collecting, molesting or disturbing a bald or golden eagle. The law also makes it illegal to “possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, offer to purchase or barter, or transport … any bald eagle … alive or dead, or any part, nest or egg thereof. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act has similar provisions.

However, wind turbine companies can slaughter thousands of bald and golden eagles with impunity – and have done so for years. Under the proposed Programmatic EIS, they will now have a blanket 30-year exemption from the law to continue killing these magnificent birds. Just don’t YOU possess a feather.

If readers remember nothing else, they should remember this about the wind industry’s turbines:

If the industry and USFWS had been telling the truth all these years about turbine impacts, these newly proposed regulations allowing a wind turbine “harvest” of up to 4,200 bald eagles and 2,000 golden eagles would never have been issued. Instead, the industry would be asking for permission to kill only a “handful” of eagles each year, and paying significant fines for doing so.

Still more deliberate, calculated lies

The American Wind Energy Association falsely claims that wind farms impact very few eagles – that only a handful of bald eagles have been lost in the history of the industry in the U.S.”

This is a blatant lie. The truth is that nothing on this planet slaughters our eagles like wind turbines spinning in their habitat.  Bald eagles being killed by wind turbines can be traced back many years, but this slaughter to our National Symbol has been routinely covered up.  The first incident I could find relating to this industry’s concealment of bald eagle fatalities occurred at Altamont back in 1989.

With new mortality allowances taken from highly embellished eagle populations and the expansion of wind turbines into our wetland habitats, the numbers of bald eagle carcasses shipped to Denver will also escalate. With these annual bag limits will come failed nesting and abandonment of eagle nesting territories around all wind projects located in eagle habitats. This deceptive FWS DPEIS discloses none of these impacts.

Other wind energy considerations 

Despite noble claims from President Obama and others, industrial wind turbines are not about reducing carbon dioxide emissions, preventing climate change or even saving humanity. They are about rigging the law, carving out exemptions, conducting fraudulent research, killing thousands of eagles, acquiring massive profits, and gouging Americans. None of which is good or admirable. 

If President Obama’s message were at all true, America would not be exporting enough fossil fuels each year to generate more than twice the kilowatt-hours of electricity now produced from all of America’s 75,000 MW of installed wind energy. This total would be three times higher if rising US natural gas exports were included. 

Yet since 2008, under the Obama Administration, these exports have skyrocketed. Coal exports have nearly doubled and crude oil exports are up about 1500 percent. Even worse, this same relatively inexpensive energy, which other countries are consuming in ever more prodigious quantities, could have been used in the USA to produce cheap electricity for the grid at a fraction of the cost of wind energy.

Even the billions of dollars wasted on Production Tax Credits for wind energy could have purchased this cheap energy.

As stupid as all this seems, it also underscores how broken our system of democracy, ethics and justice have become. 

Bald and golden eagles are protected by state and federal laws. Slaughtering eagles is illegal, and nothing is “incidental” or “unavoidable” where fraud and species extermination are involved – or when billions of taxpayer and consumer dollars are being handed to faceless American and international investors who knowingly place the number one killer of eagles – enormous wind turbines – into remote habitats.

And yet the Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and supposedly “green” Obama and Jerry Brown administrations treat Big Wind with the utmost deference, exempt it from endangered species and other environmental laws, and allow it to “harvest” up to 6,300 bald and golden eagles every year – as though the energy industry were a privileged sacred cow.

If this industry and its government protectors want their eagle “harvest” plan, Americans should demand the truth from the Interior Department, instead of accepting filtered and fraudulent information like this DPEIS. This proposed “license to kill” grants the Big Wind industry a license to virtually exterminate two of our most iconic and magnificent species. Americans should also demand that Interior first produce all their FWS eagle repository and eagle autopsy records, going back to 1974. Or there should be no deal.

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Jim Wiegand is an independent wildlife expert with decades of field observations and analytical work. He is vice president of the US Region of Save the Eagles International, an organization devoted to researching, protecting and preserving avian species threatened by human encroachment and development.

The opinions in this editorial reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine.  To submit an editorial for consideration, contact editor@eastcountymagazine.org.