By MATTHEW BROWN – Associated Press
BILLS, Mont. (AP) — A wind energy company has been sentenced to probation and to pay more than $8 million in fines and reprisals after killing at least 150 eagles at its wind farms in eight states over the past decade, the federal prosecutors announced on Wednesday.
NextEra Energy subsidiary ESI Energy pleaded guilty to three counts of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty during a court appearance in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was criminally charged in the deaths of nine eagles at three of its wind farms in Wyoming and New Mexico.
In addition to these deaths, ESI confirmed deaths of golden and bald eagles at 50 wind farms associated with ESI and NextEra since 2012. The birds died in eight states, prosecutors said: Wyoming, California, New Mexico, North Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Arizona and Illinois.
The birds are killed when they fly into wind turbine blades. Some ESI turbines killed several eagles, and because the carcasses aren’t always found, officials said the number of birds killed was likely higher than the 150 birds prosecutors said in court documents.
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NextEra’s plea deal comes amid a push by President Joe Biden for more renewable energy from wind, solar and other sources to help reduce climate-damaging emissions. It also follows a renewed commitment by federal wildlife officials under Biden to enforce protections of eagles and other birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act after law enforcement was dropped under former President Donald Trump.
It is illegal under federal law to kill or harm eagles.
The bald eagle — the US national symbol — was exempted from protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2007 after making a dramatic recovery from widespread depletion due to harmful pesticides and other problems. Animal protection officials say more than 300,000 bald eagles now occupy the US, not counting Alaska.
Golden eagles have not fared as well as populations are believed to be stable but are under pressure from wind farms, collisions with vehicles, illegal shootings and poisoning from lead ammunition. There are an estimated 31,800 golden eagles in the western United States, according to a study released last week by top eagle researchers from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.
More than 2,000 golden eagles are killed annually due to human causes, or about 60% of all deaths, the researchers said. The study concluded that golden eagle deaths are “likely to increase in the future” due to the development of wind power and other human activities.
Companies have historically been able to avoid prosecution under the centuries-old Migratory Bird Convention by taking steps to prevent bird deaths and applying for permits for the cases that do arise. ESI has not applied for such a permit, authorities said.
The company was warned before building the wind farms in New Mexico and Wyoming that they would kill birds, but it went ahead anyway, at times ignoring advice from federal wildlife officials on how to minimize deaths, according to court documents.
“For more than a decade, ESI has violated (wildlife) laws and captured eagles without obtaining or even applying for the necessary permits,” Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Division of Environment and Natural Resources said in a statement.
ESI has agreed in a plea deal to spend up to $27 million on measures to prevent future eagle deaths during its five-year trial period. This includes shutting down turbines at times when eagles are more likely to be around.
Despite these measures, wildlife officials believe some eagles could still die. In this case, the company will pay $29,623 per dead eagle under the agreement.
NextEra President Rebecca Kujawa said bird collisions with wind turbines are unavoidable accidents that should not be criminalized. She said the Juno Beach, Fla.-based company — which bills itself as the world’s largest utility by market value — is committed to reducing the harm done to wildlife by its projects.
“We disagree with the government’s underlying enforcement work,” Kujawa said in a statement. “Building any structure, driving a vehicle, or flying an airplane involves the possibility of accidental collisions with eagles and other birds.”
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