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Bald eagles focus of Eastern Shore wind farm dispute

WESTOVER — A proposed wind farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore could kill up to 20 bald eagles a year, according to federal regulators who have asked the developer to take steps to cut those numbers in a move that could affect developing the electricity source along the Eastern Seaboard.

A wind power group counters that the numbers are based on golden eagle data and are too high.

Adam Cohen, vice president and founder of Pioneer Green Energy, said the Austin, Texas-based company has agreed to raise just 30 of a possible 50 turbines initially to see how often eagle collisions occur. He said the company has cut the size of the project from 210 megawatts to 150.

“We’ve taken a huge hit on our economics to stay out of those windier areas, but it helps not only the bald eagles but other species of concern,” Cohen told The Daily Times of Salisbury for an article published Sunday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the power to stop wind power developments, which have been held up in other areas over bird and bat deaths. Sarah Nystrom, the Northeast region’s bald and golden eagle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the measures the agency is seeking could affect other projects.

“It does set a standard for what’s required of a company to try to meet those issuance criteria,” Nystrom said.

However, Nystrom acknowledged the estimates could change.

The agency used golden eagle data because there have been few run-ins between bald eagles and wind turbines. That’s because most U.S. wind farms are in the west, where golden eagles predominate. Only nine bald eagle collisions with turbine blades have been recorded nationally, so the 20 deaths were based on golden eagle data, Nystrom said.

“We don’t know if that means bald eagles can avoid turbines better than golden eagles can,” Nystrom said. “We are learning as we go, and this project is no different.”

John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association, said the agency should use separate models for bald and golden eagles.

“It is our understanding that the FWS is currently conducting an independent peer-review of the model, and our expectation is the results, which will be publicly available, will note the flaws in it,” Anderson said in a statement.

The bald eagle population has rebounded since dropping to just above 400 breeding pairs in 1963, according the Fish and Wildlife Service. The species was removed from the Endangered Species list in 2007, when the number of breeding pairs in the continental United States was approaching 10,000. Habitat loss, hunting and the pesticide DDT, which weakened bald eagle egg shells, were blamed for the drop.

The Maryland Attorney General’s office ruled in 2010 that state utility regulators have to consider Maryland’s endangered species when deciding on wind power proposals. Garrett and Allegany County state legislators sought the opinion following a federal judge’s ruling in 2009 that temporarily halted a West Virginia wind power project to protect endangered Indiana bats. A settlement allows that project, in Greenbrier County, W.Va., to operate at less than full capacity during most of the year while the operator awaits a federal permit for the “incidental take,” or killing, of endangered bats that might fly into its turbine blades.

Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed requiring a western Maryland wind energy project on Backbone Mountain in Garrett County to slow its turbines from mid-July to mid-October to prevent harm to Indiana bats.

A Garrett County permitting official, meanwhile, said earlier this year that most of a wind farm proposed for Fourmile Ridge lies in areas designated as sensitive by the state because of rare, threatened and endangered species.