The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently published a proposed rule revising regulations that authorize permit issuance for eagle incidental take and eagle nest take under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (the “Act”). In addition to retaining the individual permits already available under the Act, the new rule proposes creation of a “general” permit for qualifying wind energy and power line infrastructure projects.
The Act generally prohibits the “take,” possession, and transportation of bald eagles and golden eagles, except pursuant to federal regulations. However, the Act also authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to issue regulations to permit the take of these eagle species for various purposes. Under the current regulations, there are 2 permit types for the incidental take of eagles and eagle nests, which are issued on an individual, project-specific basis. Due, in part, to inefficiencies in the application review and approval process, issuance of these project-specific eagle take permits has – historically – been relatively rare. The Service acknowledges that, while participation in the permit program by wind energy projects has increased since 2016, it still remains well below the Service’s expectations.
According to the Service, the purpose of the new regulations is to: (i) increase the efficiency and effectiveness of permitting; (ii) facilitate and improve compliance with the regulations; (iii) and increase the conservation benefit for eagles. The Service proposes to do this by creating a general permit program to streamline the permitting process and provide more timely and cost-effective coverage for affected industries.
General permits would be available to authorize incidental take by activities that occur frequently enough for the Service to have developed a standardized approach to permitting. Specifically, the Service proposes activity-specific eligibility criteria and permit requirements in 4 new sections based on activity and type of take: (i) incidental eagle take for permitting wind energy; (ii) incidental eagle take for permitting power lines; (iii) bald eagle disturbance take; and (iv) bald eagle nest take. As part of the revised application process, a general permit applicant would self-identify as eligible and register with the Service. The applicant is then required to submit an application containing all requested information and fees, as well as certification that the applicant meets the eligibility criteria and would implement permit conditions and reporting requirements.
Two particular proposed general permits – for wind energy and power line projects – could prove particularly useful for renewable energy developers.
Wind Energy Projects
The core general permit eligibility criterion for wind energy projects would be a relative eagle abundance threshold, which a project would need to be below in order to qualify for a general permit. The proposed rule includes specific abundance thresholds for bald and golden eagles, applicable during 5 defined portions of the year. For project eligibility, seasonal bald or golden eagle abundance at all existing or proposed turbine locations must be lower than all 5 seasonal thresholds listed. Presently, the Service estimates that nearly 80% of all existing wind-energy turbines in the coterminous United States are located in areas under the proposed relative abundance thresholds for both species and thus eligible for a general permit under this proposal. The Service plans to offer publicly available online mapping resources depicting areas that qualify. However, at this time, we note that under the proposed rule, Alaska would be excluded from the general permitting program.
In addition to falling below the relative eagle abundance thresholds, wind energy projects would also need to be sited more than 660 feet from bald eagle nests and more than 2 miles from golden eagle nests to be eligible for a general permit.
For existing projects where not all turbines are located within an area below the designated thresholds of relative abundance, the project operator would need to apply for an individual permit and request consideration for a general permit in the application. The Service would review the project and issue a letter of authorization if it determines it is “appropriate” to extend general permit coverage.
Although the Service has not yet promulgated a complete set of conditions for wind energy project general permits, the proposed rule requires permittees to implement all practicable avoidance and minimization measures to reduce the likelihood of take. Permittees would also be subject to a 4 discovered-eagle permit condition, under which discovery of 4 eagle mortalities at a wind energy project covered by a general permit would prohibit the project from reapplying for additional 5-year general permits. Such a project would have to apply for an individual permit.
In the proposed rule, the Service acknowledged that it has sufficient understanding of how eagles interact with power lines to develop a general permit for eagle take resulting from power-line infrastructure.
While the proposed rule does not include detailed eligibility criteria, the Service contemplates 6 key conditions for the new power line general permit:
- All new construction and reconstruction of pole infrastructure must be electrocution-safe for bald eagles and golden eagles, except as limited by human health and safety.
- All new construction and reconstruction of pole infrastructure must be electrocution-safe for bald eagles and golden eagles, except as limited by human health and safety. All new construction and reconstruction of transmission lines must consider eagle nesting, foraging, and roosting areas in siting and design, as limited by human health and safety. Specifically, the Service recommends siting utility infrastructure at least 2 miles from golden eagle nests, 660 feet from a bald eagle nest, 660 feet from a bald eagle roost, and 1 mile from a bald eagle or golden eagle foraging area.
- A reactive retrofit strategy must be developed that governs retrofitting high-risk poles when an eagle electrocution is discovered. A reactive retrofit strategy responds to incidents in which eagles are killed or injured by electrocution.
- A proactive retrofit strategy must be developed and implemented to convert all existing infrastructure to be electrocution-safe, prioritizing poles identified as the highest risk to eagles.
- A collision-response strategy must be implemented for all eagle collisions with power lines. If an eagle collision is detected, a strategy must outline the steps to identify and assess the collision, consider options for response, and implement a response.
- An eagle shooting response strategy must be developed and implemented when an eagle shooting is discovered near power-line infrastructure.
Service review and approval would not be required prior to obtaining coverage under either of these general permits. Rather, according to the Service, the general permit authorization would be “generated” using permit conditions and reporting requirements for the proposed activity. Under the proposed rule, upon submitting an application, the Service will “automatically issue a general permit to authorize the take requested in the application.”
The Service intends to conduct annual audits for a small percentage of all general permits to ensure applicants are appropriately interpreting and applying eligibility criteria. The maximum term for wind energy and power line project general permits would be 5 years; after expiration, with certain narrow exceptions, projects could reapply for new 5-year general permits.
Finally, because the Service will undertake environmental review to support its final rule, obtaining coverage under the general permits would not require project-specific environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. However, applicants for the general permit must certify, among other things, that: (i) the activity for which take is to be authorized does not affect a property that is listed, or is eligible for listing, in the National Register of Historic Places; or (ii) that the applicant has obtained, and is in compliance with, a written agreement with the relevant State Historic Preservation Officer or Tribal Historic Preservation Officer that outlines all measures the applicant will undertake to mitigate or prevent adverse effects to the historic property.
The Service is accepting comments on the proposed rule until November 29, 2022. The Service hosted an initial listening session for the general public on October 20th, and will host an additional listening session on November 3, 2022.
Under the federal Endangered Species Act, “take” is defined as any action “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.”