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Golden eagles threatened by wind energy growth in the West

Dennis Schroeder
National Renewable Energy Laboratory

News brief

Golden eagles are colliding, literally, with wind farms in the Mountain West. As the AP reports, this trend is posing a new threat to the species, which avian scientists say is teetering on the edge of decline.

While the bald eagle population has recovered and grown over the past decade, golden eagle populations remain stagnant. They’re put at risk by illegal shootings, rising global temperatures, lead poisoning, electrocutions, and many other factors.

And as wind energy developers push to meet the growing demand for renewable power, the likelihood of collisions with wind turbines becomes increasingly likely.

Bryan Bedrosian, conservation director at the Teton Raptor Center in Western Wyoming, said the bird is ill-equipped to navigate a wind farm.

“They're flying through, they're looking down for prey, they're not looking over their shoulder," Bedrosian said. “What a lot of people don't realize is the tips of those blades are spinning upwards of 180 miles an hour.”

When a bird collides with a turbine blade, the impact is almost always fatal.

Bedrosian isn’t against wind farms, however. He advocates for placing turbines in areas less frequented by birds. Power companies can also shut down operations when eagles are in the area or during migration seasons.

One limited study in Europe suggested that painting one turbine blade black can help mitigate collisions. One energy corporation is funding similar research in Wyoming.

Additionally, Bedrosian supports efforts that limit other current risks to golden eagles. This includes retro-fitting power lines to limit electrocutions, cleaning up roadkill to curb vehicle deaths, and educating hunters to use non-lead ammunition to limit poisoning. Advocacy against illegal shootings and for cutting global emissions would also help, Bedrosian said.

Earlier this year a wind energy company pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was ordered to pay more than $8 million following the deaths of eagles at wind farms in several states, including Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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