Eagle Deaths: Wind Farm Company Pleads Guilty To Killing Protected Birds, The First Settlement Of Its Kind

Duke Energy has been prosecuted for killing protected birds and will pay $1 million in fines.

By Josh Lieberman on November 23, 2013 12:39 PM EST

The wind energy company behind 14 golden eagle deaths has pled guilty. It is a federal crime to kill a golden eagle. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Drew Avery, CC BY 2.0

A renewable energy company has pled guilty to killing 14 golden eagles and 149 other birds since 2009 and will pay $1 million in fines. The bird deaths occurred at two Wyoming wind farms operated by Duke Energy Renewables. The case marks the first time a wind energy company has been prosecuted under the Migratory Treaty Bird Act of 1918.   

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"In this plea agreement, Duke Energy Renewables acknowledges that it constructed these wind projects in a manner it knew beforehand would likely result in avian deaths," said Robert G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

In May, the Associated Press investigated eagle deaths at wind farms, finding that four dozen golden eagles had been killed by turbines in Wyoming, with some of the deaths occurring at wind farms operated by Duke Energy. A study study published in September confirmed wind farms' role in eagle deaths, with government biologists attributing at least 67 golden and bald eagle deaths in the last five years to wind farms. 

The killing of a golden or bald eagle is a federal crime, with which the Obama administration has not shied away from charging oil and power companies. In 2009, for instance, ExxonMobil ponied up $600,000 in fines and fees after chemicals from their plants were found to have killed 85 protected birds. But the Obama administration, which has championed wind energy, has ignored wind farm bird deaths until now. 

"We deeply regret the impacts of golden eagles at two of our wind facilities," said Greg Wolf, president of Duke Energy Renewables, in a statement. "Our goal is to provide the benefits of wind energy in the most environmentally responsible way possible."

The American Bird Conservancy, a non-profit group that works to protect bird species and their habitats, has petitioned the U.S. Department of the Interior to introduce better regulations to safeguard wildlife and reward responsible wind farms. They said the Duke Energy settlement was a move in the right direction, and acknowledged that wind energy inevitably leads to bird deaths. 

"All wind projects will kill some birds," said Michael Hutchins, national coordinator of the American Bird Conservancy's wind energy campaign. "It is, sadly, unavoidable, but some areas are worse than others, and we can predict where many of these will be."

Birds aren't the only animals killed by wind farms. Earlier this month, Marks Hayes of the University of Colorado estimated that between 600,000 and 900,000 bats were killed in 2012 by wind farms. While bats don't get the same sympathy that eagles do, they are the primary consumers of insects in some regions; fewer bats means more insects, which can lead to farmers spending billions of dollars more in insect suppression services. 

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