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A Missouri study on bald eagles and turbines aims to find how birds and wind energy can co-exist

 The Missouri Department of Conservation is attaching GPS transmitters to the backs of bald eagles to understand how wind turbines are affecting them in Atchison County, Missouri.
Missouri Department of Conservation
The Missouri Department of Conservation is attaching GPS transmitters to the backs of bald eagles to understand how wind turbines are affecting them in Atchison County, Missouri.

Bald eagles are an American conservation success story. Conservation efforts over more than four decades allowed officials to take the bird off the endangered species list in 2007.

Now the Missouri Department of Conservation is hoping to help keep the iconic American bird protected by starting a multi-year research project to understand how wind turbines affect them.

“We want to know how these eagles move across the landscape during stages of their lives and is there a negative interaction with these wind facilities?” said Janet Haslerig, an avian ecologist with the Department of Conservation.

The department will tag four adult eagles and four immature eagles with GPS transmitters to get a better understanding of the movements, territories and habits of the growing Midwest bald eagle population.

It will also tell them what kind of danger the wind turbines pose.

Wind energy and bird collisions

Renew Missouri hopes that the results of this study, in addition to learning more about bald eagles, will show accurately what the impacts of turbines are on the birds.

“Sometimes the case for how much damage wind turbines can do for migration, for causing injury to birds, can sometimes be overstated by opponents of renewable energy,” said James Owen, the executive director of Renew Missouri. “So I think being able to really get some precise numbers on that will be helpful.”

Last month, former President Donald Trump claimed that thousands of bald eagles are killed by wind turbines, a claim with little evidence. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about 140,000 to 328,000 birds in general are estimated to be killed per year by turbines, a number that is expected to grow due to more wind farms. However, deaths caused by birds running into buildings are about triple those killed by turbines each year.

Yet there is documentation of bald eagles colliding with wind turbines. Last year, ESI energy, a company under NextEra, was fined for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. At least 150 bald and golden eagles were killed on its wind farms.

Haslerig with the Missouri’s Department of Conservation said wind companies can protect the birds by being careful about the placement of turbines.

“We hope this will inform the wind facilities as well as our agency on where we should put these wind facilities. What's a good location? What's a bad location?” she said.

Missouri already has a set of guidelines for energy infrastructure that takes conservation into account. New technology also is being developed to protect birds including sounds that keep them away and paint on the blades.

Right now Owens said the state “falls in the middle” when it comes to renewable energy infrastructure.

“We have a lot more opportunity for wind than I think we’re using,” he said. “Some of that is limited by certain counties having limitations on placing wind there.”

Aligning conservation and energy goals

Conservationists often agree that renewable energy is needed, even as they seek to protect birds.

Mary Nemecek from the Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City said she sometimes gets calls from people who want to oppose a wind energy project in their county. In one such case, she referred them to the state’s guidelines and checked back in.

“I said, ‘Did you read the guidelines? Did you have any questions?’ And they said, ‘Well, we were really hoping to stop this instead of finding a way to work with them about it.’” she said. “And I think that's really unfortunate.”

She said the study could also provide useful information on whether the birds' habitats might be affected, even if the birds are not being injured or killed by the structures. There have been projects proposed in the past in the state that would interfere with bird migration and habitats.

“There are places that wind energy should not go, but that doesn't mean that there shouldn't be renewable energy,” she said.

She also acknowledged the survival of birds and humans is going to be dependent on finding solutions to the climate crisis. According toa study from the National Audubon Society, 389 species of bird are threatened by climate change.

“It’s just unfortunate that it's gotten to the point where there's a chasm between renewable energy and the goals that it's trying to accomplish, and people see that at odds with conservation,” she said, “because I really think that the outcome should really be aligned to the two.”

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

Eva Tesfaye was a Report For America corps member that covered agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media.