The bald eagle recovery program in Iowa is perhaps our state’s best wildlife management success story to date, but progress is being lost due to the mass killing of bald eagles by industrial wind turbines. This conflict between industry and environment is now playing out near Fairbank, Iowa located in Fayette County, where shell companies Mason Wind (parent firm is China’s largest naval defense contractor) and Optimum Renewables (parent company is a German wind services firm) are attempting to build their wind farm in an area known for bald eagle habitats.
At the time of European settlement in America, it is estimated there were 100,000 eagle pairs in the lower forty-eight states. By the 1960s, winter counts averaged less than 4,000 eagles. In Iowa, there were no known nesting pairs after 1905. Hunting, habitat loss, and pesticide contamination led to the drastic decline. Congress passed the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1940 in an attempt to reverse the eagle’s decline. This Act had limited effectiveness at stopping the decline, so in 1978, Congress protected the Bald Eagle under the Endangered Species Act. These protective laws and an increased awareness of and concern for bald eagles lead to the species recovery.
According to the Iowa DNR, the number of nesting pairs counted in the lower forty-eight states has gone from 417 in 1963 to over 9,000 in 2006. Iowa reported its first bald eagle nest in over 70 years in 1977, and since then, eagle nests have been reported in 86 of Iowa’s 99 counties. There are currently 262 bald eagle territories classified as ‘active’ by the Iowa DNR, mean there was nesting activity reported within the last three years.
The good news story of bald eagle recovery in Iowa has turned tragic as industrial wind turbines are slaughtering raptors such as bald and golden eagles by the thousands every year. Wildlife biologists estimate that nationally industrial turbines kill 83,000 raptors such as bald and golden eagles each year. Since bald and golden eagles, including their bodies, parts, and feathers, are protected by the 1940 Act, the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) has set up a repository where dead golden and bald eagles can be processed to allow people the opportunity to legally own eagle feathers and other parts. Eagles play an important part in many Native American traditions.
The repository has seen a sharp rise in eagle carcasses in conjunction with the proliferation of industrial turbines across the Midwest. The number of bald eagle carcasses sent to the Eagle Repository have increased by about 250 percent since 20005. A much higher percentage of the eagle carcasses received by the Eagle Repository are mutilated, a condition typically caused by wind turbine blade strikes. In America today, the most likely place for a person to find an eagle carcass is at or near a wind farm. The regions that now ship the most eagle carcasses to the repository are the regions that have installed the most wind energy since 20066.
From 2012-2013 this repository processed nearly 2,300 dead bald and golden eagles. U.S. Region 3, which includes Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan, led the other seven regions with 547 dead bald eagles. The wind energy lobby downplays this mass killing by arguing their machines are no more dangerous to eagles than cars, windows, or cats. Research done by Joel Pagel and Brian Millsap (and others), of the USFWS, indicates that the top three killers of eagles are transmission lines, cars, and wind turbines.
Since wind turbines only produce power about 33 percent of the time, they require the addition of a significant amount of transmission lines to the backup power sources (coal/gas/nuclear), so wind figures twice into the top three killers of bald eagles. Cats do not kill raptors: raptors eat/kill cats. Eagles do not live in densely populated areas and their hunting patterns are such that collision with windows would be extraordinary and likely appear in a national news story.
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The wind energy industry should be paying millions in fines for the thousands of eagle killings, but their lobbyists have pressured the Whitehouse to allow unlimited eagle kills for industrial turbines over 30 years. A federal judge recently ruled against this free-kill policy after a lawsuit filed by the American Bird Conservancy. Despite the presence of eagle habitats, the foreign-owned wind developers press forward with their projects in Iowa.
In Fayette County, the same two wind companies are ignoring local opposition and pushing ahead with their wind development project, which was previously denied by Fayette, Blackhawk, and Buchanan counties. Fayette County Board of Adjustments rejected the wind farm as not meeting zoning requirements, but the wind developer attorneys argued on a technicality that allowed them to push forward with building their turbines within a mile of the city and directly next to a forested area known for roosting eagles by local residents. Fayette is home to 10 active eagle nests and plays a key role in migratory eagle sustainability.
The Little Wapsipinicon River runs through the town of Fairbank (it then connects with the Wapsi several miles south of town). It is a major migratory pathway for a number of species of birds, including both bald and golden eagles. Each year 4,000 to 7,000 bald eagles winter along the Mississippi corridor from Minneapolis to 50 miles south of St. Louis. Fairbank citizens concerned about the visiting eagles are demanding the developers conduct an eagle conservation study and apply for an eagle take permit through the USFWS but developers have done neither. It is against federal law to kill a bald or golden eagle without the take permit. The Iowa Wind Action Group, a non-profit whose mission is to educate about industrial wind in support of informed decision-making, is petitioning the USFWS to recommend the wind developers near Fairbank complete a conservation study and apply for a take permit.
Supporting a sustainable agricultural landscape requires careful consideration of all species utilizing the area, whether permanently or during migrations, to maintain balance. Wind development in Iowa is largely unregulated, meaning environmental considerations are at the whim of a developer. While wind lobbyists use climate change to justify entry into sensitive or inappropriate landscapes, the scientific reality is that wind energy does not have a measurable impact on climate change and sustainability demands a broader focus beyond just carbon reduction.
Iowa’s 3,400 turbines currently reduce the global carbon output by .0008 percent. Nationally, despite receiving tens of billions of dollars in tax subsidies, industrial wind contributes roughly 2 percent of Americans’ energy consumption as their turbines kill some 900,000 bats and 1 million birds/raptors each year. We should not have to kill the planet to save it. The death of a single bald eagle will take years to replace because eagles are slow reproducers.
It takes an eagle 6-7 years to reach reproductive maturity and most nests have one fledgling that makes it from hatch to maturity. Nearly 90 percent of eagles will perish before reaching adulthood. While 9,800 eagle pairs in the lower forty-eight may sound like a strong population, it will not take long for their numbers to plummet. Proper siting of wind farms is essential to preserve Iowa’s bald and golden eagle populations.
Industrial turbines are killing thousands of avian, including endangered eagles and bats, every year in Iowa, but bird conservancy groups in the state have been very quiet on this issue. Does anyone care that this is happening to our avian? All wind developers in Iowa should be required to complete USFWS conservation studies, surveys, and take permits in any county with bald/golden eagles or endangered bats.
• Terry McGovern is a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and business professor at Clarke University in Dubuque. These comments represent his personal views and not necessarily those of his employer. Comments: Iowawindaction@gmail.com; www.facebook.com/groups/Iowawindaction