California Wind Farms Impact Golden Eagle Population
At the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, wind turbines provide clean, renewable energy to thousands of homes in California’s Bay Area. Unfortunately, these same turbines have killed an average of 67 golden eagles per year since the wind farm was constructed in the 1980s.
The Los Angeles Times reports that approximately 5,000 turbines border the riparian canyons and grasslands where the protected raptors build their nests. The region has one of the highest concentrations of golden eagles in the United States, about 60 pairs according to field biologist and East Bay Regional Park District wildlife manager Doug Bell.
“It would take 167 pairs of local nesting golden eagles to produce enough young to compensate for their mortality rate related to wind energy production,” Bell told the LA Times.
The golden eagle is the largest bird of prey in North America, capable of diving upon its quarry at blinding speeds of 150 miles per hour. Due to their fierce flying and majestic size, the eagles have trouble navigating around the wind turbines as they hunt for prey. Bell explains that the cause of death for golden eagles at Altamont Pass is usually blunt-force trauma.
On-site surveys conducted by field biologists have found that approximately 2,000 raptors, including golden eagles, red-tail hawks, American kestrels and prairie falcons, are killed annually at Altamont Pass, the Times reports. Throughout the U.S., almost 440,000 bird fatalities occur each year at other wind farms. Thousands of bats also meet a grisly end at the turbines’ blades.
Wind farms are permitted a certain number of accidental bird deaths, as long as the turbines are turned off at key times during migration and older turbines are replaced with less hazardous models. Another wind farm, the Buena Vista Wind Energy Project, recently installed 38 new, taller 1-megawatt turbines to replace 179 old ones. Golden eagle fatalities near Buena Vista have dropped 50%. Other raptor deaths are down by 75%.
In 2010, activists successfully lobbied NextEra Energy Resources — the company that manages Altamont Pass — to replace its older turbines with similar new models. The upgrades can’t come soon enough. In April, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law mandating that one-third of the state’s electricity should come from renewable sources by 2020. Wind power figures prominently in this plan.
Avian enthusiasts and fans of clean energy need to work together to cut down on bird fatalities overall. A spokesperson for Audobon California, Gary George, reminds the Times that taxpayers spent millions to preserve the California condor. As the condor has flourished, it has expanded its habitat into territories with wind farms and sites where turbines are proposed. “How’s the public going to feel about wind energy if a condor hits the turbines?” George asks the Times.
Hopefully, more bird-safe technology will be implemented at locations like Altamont Pass, and we won’t have to find out.
Image credit: Drew Avery