By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A bird advocacy group sued the U.S. government on Thursday over rules it says loosen protections for eagles killed by wind turbines, arguing they threaten decades of protection that saved the bald eagle, America's national emblem, from extinction.
The American Bird Conservancy filed suit in federal court in California to challenge the authorization of 30-year permits to renewable energy developers to accidentally kill protected bald and golden eagles, which may die as a result of collisions with towering wind turbines.
“Eagles are among our nation’s most iconic and cherished birds. They do not have to be sacrificed for the next 30 years for the sake of unconstrained wind energy,” Michael Hutchins, coordinator of a wind energy panel with the American Bird Conservancy, said in a statement.
Federal laws like the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act ban the killing of eagles without special permits, once issued for such restricted purposes as scientific research.
But U.S. wildlife managers expanded the permits in 2009 to include activities like renewable energy development, a top priority of the Obama administration, and lengthened them in December to 30 years from five.
The alternative energy industry had sought the changes to demonstrate to investors that developments like wind farms – many on or planned for public lands in the U.S. West – would not face the uncertainty that came with applying for new permits every five years.
The American Bird Conservancy argued in the lawsuit that by imposing the looser rules, the U.S. Interior Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service were in violation of landmark conservation laws designed to protect bald eagles, a bird stamped on the U.S. national seal, and for declining populations of golden eagles.
The American Wind Energy Association said in a statement on Thursday the permit program “appropriately balances wildlife conservation with the realities of the private sector.”
Conservationists accused the Obama administration of recklessly giving wind companies “a 30-year pass” to kill eagles without assessing the impact on the birds’ populations.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Laury Parramore said the agency would not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.
The number of eagles killed by wind farms each year is disputed. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 85 of the raptors have died that way since 1997, but the American Bird Conservancy says the wind industry has killed more than 2,000 eagles in three decades.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)