“The grim reality is that fewer than 500 golden eagles remain in California. When will authorities wake up to windpower?”
The golden eagle is a vital species in rapid decline, and most of this demise has been relatively recent. Although it has never been publically acknowledged, the primary reason has been the development of wind energy in the middle of the eagle’s foraging habitats.
Ironically, during this golden eagle population crash, bald eagle populations have increased dramatically because, up to now, their habitats have been spared the ravages of wind development. This too will soon change, however, as wind energy installations are built in their wetland habitats across America.
Proper studies would easily document and explain the decline of golden eagles. But the studies are not being conducted – deliberately, so as to hide and obfuscate what is happening. The clear history of eagle nesting failures and habitat abandonments near wind projects has been hidden from public view, as wind projects have expanded across California and our western states.
Among the undisclosed impacts are those that occur when adult eagles are killed by a turbine during the egg and downy stages of a nesting cycle. During this critical 8-9 week period, there is a 100% probability of a complete nest failure if one adult eagle is lost. A single parent cannot possibly hunt, incubate eggs, and protect its young from the elements.
This history of golden eagle nesting failures near California wind turbines is never clearly stated, but the evidence is there for anyone who wishes to observe or read about it. Some of this impact is revealed in the last environmental impact documents submitted to support expanding the Shiloh wind project in California’s Montezuma Hills Wind Resource Area, although those documents also suggest that a turbine-related nesting failure recently occurred in this area.
Bald Eagles at Risk
The same fate is coming to our bald eagles. This great bird’s population has been expanding in the wetland habitats of California, and the Sacramento River delta provides good foraging and nesting opportunities for them. Adult bald eagles have been seen near the Montezuma Hills WRA turbines, and a possible (never verified) bald eagle nest site was reported nearby on Grizzly Island.
Bald eagles are similar to golden eagles, in that they are both hunters and scavengers. Once they discover that carcasses of other birds are available on the ground around turbines, they are attracted by these carcasses, and some will be killed. This could very well have happened to two bald eagles that were seen near the Shiloh wind turbines in 2011.
However, the facts surrounding these incidents are being hidden. As with all wind industry mortality documents, vital details are being “officiated” – excised from documents or revised to obfuscate telling information, at the direction of government or industry officials – making it impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions. The purpose is to avoid negative publicity, help push projects through, and in this case keep developers from having to apply for incidental (kill) permits for the bald eagle.
Dead eagles used to mean something – back when environmentalists and fish and game officials expressed outrage that they were being shot or impacted by DDT. But today nothing is said about their dwindling population by any government agency entrusted with protecting the species, nor by the vast majority of environmental groups, and certainly not in any wind industry documents. Instead, the documents make statements that are completely false and omit critically important information.
The untold truth is that golden eagles are severely threatened by wind turbines.
For some time now, I have said the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and wind industry would have a very hard time proving that even 100 occupied and productive (successful) golden eagle nests remain in California. This is based on my intimate knowledge of this magnificent species, these habitats and the deaths of thousands of golden eagles by wind turbines, and what I have seen supports this.
Truth about Eagle Populations in California
I look closely for eagles and other raptors anytime I travel or head into the field, and have done so for over 45 years. I do not see golden eagles nearly as often as I used to in California. In the 1980s and 1990s, on hundreds of trips through the bay area foothills on down to Salinas, it was normal for me to see 6-10 golden eagles. Now I rarely see even one.
I used to see them migrating through the areas near my home in Northern California during the spring and fall every year. I have not seen a golden eagle in these skies for several years. The last one I saw was an adult hunting along a brushy ridge line about 1,000 feet above Shasta Lake.
A recent survey adds credibility to my much lower estimate for the current population of golden eagles in California. In 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in California contracted BioResource Consultants, Inc. (BRC) to collect new field data and report on the current breeding status of golden eagles in a significant portion of California. The stated purpose was to contribute to a wider North American effort to document golden eagle habitat use and population demographics. The primary study areas were the BLM’s California Desert District and Northern District.
The study did not disclose it, but these two BLM districts cover approximately two-thirds of the entire state. The study also did not share other facts pertaining to the golden eagle in California. Because of heavy forests in its mountains and coastal areas, the Northern District has never supported many golden eagles. In addition, many historical eagle nesting sites no longer exist, and many others in the past were just alternative nest sites for a broad, established eagle territory.
From a database of approximately 522 historical golden eagle nesting locations known within the Desert and Northern California Districts, BRC surveyed 424 Golden Eagle nesting sites in 2012. Across an area that covers two-thirds of the state, BRC counted 71 golden eagle nest sites that it claimed were active.
However, only 45 of these occupied nest sites were successful in raising their young.
This is the single most important number for this declining population, because it determines how many golden eagles there will be in the coming years. Few successful nests today mean fewer eagles tomorrow.
In sharp contrast, a biologist hired to do studies related to wind project developments in Southern CA gave out a completely estimate in 2012 for the golden eagle population in San Diego County. He says, “Historical and current data from the core study area indicate a 55% decline from 104 breeding pairs in 1895.” However, there is no scientific basis for this statement.
The core study area was San Diego County, and 55% of 104 breeding pairs is an estimate of 57 breeding pairs. San Diego County has some excellent golden eagle habitat, but my research findings suggest that no one could prove there are even 10 breeding pairs of golden eagles left in the 4,526 square miles of San Diego County. Moreover, the BLM study did not find its grand total of 45 occupied and successful golden eagle nests in just the San Diego area, but in an area covering nearly two-thirds of a state that totals 163,696 sq miles (100,207,000 acres – more than Indiana, Illinois and Iowa combined).
A recent FWS estimate states that California wind industry turbines are killing about 100 golden eagles each year in the BLM’s Central California District. In this region there are the four wind resource areas: Altamont Pass, Montezuma hills, Tehachapi and Pacheco Pass. About 53 of the golden eagles in this estimate are killed outside Altamont Pass.
The FWS estimate appears to be much too low. As my colleagues and I have explained in detail previously (here, here, here and here, for instance) the industry has always been reluctant to disclose the truth or conduct honest studies. When studies are conducted, search areas are greatly restricted, and search intervals have allowed mortally wounded eagles up to 90 days wander off or be collected by lease holders, picked up by wind industry personnel or carted off by scavengers.
The studies never come close to counting all the deaths, and the industry pulls every possible trick to make its conclusions less alarming. The Altamont Pass mortality studies have also been overhauled, so that their estimates now appear lower, before they are included in the new figures.
BLM CALIFORNIA DISTRICT MAP
Its very location suggests that the Pacheco Pass wind turbines have to be killing more than two golden eagles a year. This wind project deserves a lot more attention. The California Energy Commission states that each of the 157 turbines here are only about 100 kW, but aerial images suggest that most are at least 200 kW and some are much larger than that – meaning they are likely killing many more birds and catapulting dead and injured birds far beyond the search areas. Furthermore, the turbines are sitting right in the heart of what still remains of the golden eagle population in California.
Available mortality data, combined with what we know of industry and FWS study methodologies, strongly suggest that the wind energy industry is actually killing over 200 eagles a year in California. Many of those being killed are the fledged offspring from the remaining nest sites in the Central District, while others migrate into the area from other Great Basin regions to the north and west: parts of California, Nevada, Oregon and Idaho. This estimate does not include eagles killed because of turbine-related nest failures nor eagles killed further south at other California wind projects in eagle habitat.
The FWS currently estimates that the golden eagle population in California is around 2,000, and that the Western U.S. supports a stable population of about 20,722 golden eagles. However, the active and successful nest site data from BLM surveys indicates that the golden eagle population is declining and there are now fewer than 500 golden eagles in the entire state.  A reasonable explanation for these inflated numbers is that the FWS population estimates correspond neatly with the Eagle Conservation plan, which allows 5% of the eagle population to be killed each year by wind turbines.
The fallout from this contrived data is that the wind industry is being allowed to legally kill 1,036 golden eagles a year from a rapidly declining population.
Getting Accountability from the Interior Department and Wind Industry
On October 30, 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced a public comment period for the Shiloh IV wind project as follows:
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service.
The terrible reality is this. This self-laudatory statement is simply not true. California’s golden eagle population has not been close to 2,000 for at least 20 years. The wind industry is killing far more than 100 eagles annually in BLM’s Central District alone. And the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Eagle Conservation Plan is a giant charade put forth for public consumption.
How can this problem get fixed? The fact is, it may never be fixed, because the Interior Department, wind energy industry, environmental organizations, and local, state and national politicians are all committed to policies that emphasize eliminating fossil fuels and falsely proclaim that hydrocarbons are being replaced with wind, solar and other renewable energy. In this perverted context, protecting eagles (and other birds and bats) is only a distant secondary consideration.
As impressive as these entities might want to make renewable energy appear, the growth in wind and solar power cannot possibly replace traditional energy sources, or keep up with the growth in energy demand. Nor can it be reconciled with its unsustainable impacts on vital wildlife species.
However, no government employee wants to “rock the boat” or antagonize his superiors, and risk losing his or her job. The same is true of people in these other sectors. They too risk losing their jobs and being branded as untrustworthy malcontents, if they reveal “trade secrets” and “proprietary data” (such as actual mortality numbers or methods used to hide, manipulate and obfuscate actual bird and bat deaths resulting from the operation of thousands of wind turbines in prime wildlife habitats).
As a federal employee told me two decades ago, field personnel are forced to ignore the truth in order to support policies and agendas coming out of Washington. If they refuse, they get fired. He also said, if I ever told anybody what he had revealed to me, his life would be ruined and he would deny ever talking to me.
People need to open their eyes, stop viewing the slaughter of bald and golden eagles as “acceptable” “collateral” damage by a thus-far unaccountable wind energy industry, bureaucracy and political establishment that are rigging the numbers and peddling deadly turbines as a “responsible,” “sustainable” and “environment-friendly” alternative to hydrocarbon, hydroelectric and nuclear power.
The only way the slaughter will end is if enough people get angry and vocal enough to force industrial wind energy developers and government agencies to ensure honesty and transparency in studies they issue under their names.
That means they must make their research methodologies scientifically defensible, work closely and cooperatively with Save the Eagles International and other concerned conservation groups, allow access to turbine sites and raw data, and permit independent overview and approval of their data, conclusions and reports.
 This estimate is subjective but worthy of open debate and transparent counter-documentation by officials. In the California Natural Diversity Database , after 10 years of input, there are only 141 occurrences listed statewide for the golden eagle. Many of the sites showing clusters are actually a single eagle territory with their alternate nest sites being listed and most of the yellow quadrants shown on the database map are actually abandoned golden eagle territories that still retain old eagle nest sites. Golden Eagle surveys have also shown the abandonment of habitat over vast areas in California.
Jim Wiegand is an independent wildlife expert with decades of field observations and analytical work. He is vice president of the U.S. region of Save the Eagles International, an organization devoted to researching, protecting and preserving avian species threatened by human encroachment and development.