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Eagle death at Nevada wind farm brings federal scrutiny

A single dead eagle could spell trouble for a White Pine County wind farm that sells power to NV Energy.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting an investigation after a golden eagle was killed in late February at the Spring Valley Wind Farm, about 300 miles north of Las Vegas.

San Francisco-based Pattern Energy, which owns the 152-megawatt wind energy project, reported the dead bird and turned it over to federal authorities within 36 hours of its discovery.

“They did all the things they were supposed to because of an eagle death,” said Jeannie Stafford, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Nevada.

Even so, the wind farm could face a fine of up to $200,000 because it does not hold a federal “take” permit that would allow the incidental death of a golden or bald eagle.

Stafford said the matter is under investigation by the service’s Office of Law Enforcement.

The $225 million facility went online in August as the first utility-scale wind farm in Nevada and the first to be built on federal land anywhere in the United States.

It features 66 turbines, each roughly 400 feet tall, scattered over 7,500 acres at the heart of the vast Spring Valley, which runs north-south for about 110 miles between the Schell Creek and Snake mountain ranges in eastern Nevada.

Stafford said Spring Valley is not a breeding ground for golden eagles, but the large birds of prey do migrate through the area and forage for food there.

Few bald eagles, if any, are known to pass through Spring Valley during migration, she said.

Those two species receive special protection under federal law dating to 1940.

Scott Flaherty, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s southwestern regional office in Sacramento, Calif., said wind energy projects are not required to get take permits, but those that don’t open themselves up to investigation and possible prosecution under federal law.

Applying for a permit and engaging with the service before any eagles are killed “provides the best possible outcomes for the companies and the wildlife,” Flaherty said.

“We really prefer that wind developers work with the service early on in the process” to identify the best site for a farm and its individual turbines to reduce bird strikes, he said.

The incident in Spring Valley comes as the service considers extending the length of its take permits to up to 30 years, a move that could cut down on some of the red tape facing wind energy projects.

Flaherty said the current take permits are good for up to five years.

“It is not like a license to just go out and kill eagles,” he said. “The goal is no net loss. The service looks at populations, regional and national populations over time.”

NV Energy has agreed to buy wind energy from Spring Valley for the next 20 years.

The state’s largest electric utility is already delivering power from the wind farm to customers in Northern Nevada. The wind farm will start lighting lights and running air conditioners in the Las Vegas Valley with the completion of a new transmission line being built from Ely to Apex.

In a statement late Monday, Pattern CEO Mike Garland called the bird’s death “unfortunate” but noted that it is “the one eagle incident” since the start of operations on Aug. 8.

“We reported the incident to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other local agencies and continue to work with these organizations on this matter,” he said.

In December, when the Spring Valley facility won Wind Project of the Year at an international power-sector conference, Garland touted the company’s “environmental leadership.”

That included such “groundbreaking mitigation measures” as “modified electrical lines to reduce risks to birds and an advanced radar system designed to protect birds and bats,” he said.

Environmental groups initially tried to block construction of the wind farm over concerns about birds and bats dying in collisions with the turbines, among other issues.

The Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in January 2011 accusing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management of skirting environmental regulations to fast-track the project.

The two sides settled their differences last year, after a federal judge refused to stop work at the wind farm to allow more study of how it might affect bats and sage grouse in the area.

Under the settlement, Pattern agreed to expand its program for tracking bird and bat deaths associated with the project. The company also agreed to pay $50,000 for a study of nearby Rose Cave, where more than 1 million Mexican free-tailed bats roost during their fall migration.

In 2010, the developers of the wind farm said they expected fewer than 203 birds and 193 bats to die each year from turbine encounters.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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