Take a drive across the wind-swept plains of Wyoming and Northern Colorado, and you're likely to see them: raptors floating on the air currents, looking down for their own next meal or one for their chicks.
If you turn your gaze lower, in some places you'll also see one of the few possible threats to those raptors: banks of wind turbines supplying the Front Range and communities farther away with electricity.
But how much of a threat are they?
The Obama administration has proposed new rules that would allow the operators of the wind farms to apply for 30-year permits allowing them leeway in the number of migratory birds they kill, so long as the operator has a plan in place to help mitigate the danger. Environmental groups worry such permits would be akin to a blank check for operators to kill species such as bald eagles.
About 150 miles from here, the question of raptor deaths will play a large role in the speed and cost of construction for a mammoth wind energy project. Dubbed the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind power project, the $5 billion effort would include the installation of as many as 1,000 turbines on the sagebrush-covered hills west of the North Platte River. The Bureau of Land Management believes as many as 64 golden and bald eagles will be killed each year; the company says the number will be far lower.
If the administration is going to loosen its standards for deaths of migratory birds from wind turbines, it should be looking at other ways in which birds can and should be protected — permits could be tied to retrofitting older power poles that are known electrocution risks for raptors, and turbine operators could be required to be wary during known migration periods.
The recovery of the bald eagle is a national success story — they were taken off the endangered species list and is thriving in many areas of the country. Golden eagle populations in the West are stable. However, that does not mean energy companies should have a blank check for harming them in the future.