In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that the agency will be proposing a streamlined eagle incidental take permitting process for wind energy projects that are considered “low-risk” to eagles. Although this new low-risk framework has not been finalized or formally proposed yet, USFWS has made available a presentation outlining the framework.
Back in January 2017, USFWS rolled out revisions to the eagle take permitting program, which necessitates incidental take permits for the incidental take of bald and golden eagles under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Prior to implementation of the new program, only two eagle take permits had ever been issued. The new program introduced in 2017 was intended to ease the process for obtaining an eagle take permit. However, it required two years of preconstruction surveys. Further, no distinction was made under the new program between low and high risk projects, and guidance issued by the agency suggested that even low-risk projects would need to obtain a permit, leading to uncertainty and unease among project developers.
The new low-risk framework informally proposed last month would reduce the burden on developers whose projects are sited in areas with low eagle abundance and thus pose relatively less risk of incidental take to eagles. The new approach is largely oriented towards wind projects but applicable to all activities that might incidentally take eagles. Under the new framework, USFWS acknowledges that required surveys for wind energy facilities to estimate exposure rates of eagles in low-density areas can be of limited value. The agency is proposing that projects in low-risk areas would still need to obtain eagle take permits, but that the survey requirements for those projects would be substantially reduced. In areas where both bald and golden eagles are of low abundance for all seasons of the year based on available data, the two-year survey requirement would be waived, and project developers could instead predict eagle exposure and fatality rates using data from previously surveyed low-exposure sites. Other requirements would remain; for instance, a desktop survey (a Stage 1 evaluation under the Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance) assessing available information would still be necessary to ensure no eagle nests, roosts, etc. are in or close to the project footprint.
No revisions to the regulations would be necessary to implement the low-risk framework, as provisions of the regulations as revised in 2016 allow the agency to waive pre-construction survey requirements when sufficient data are available to predict fatalities. USFWS expects to officially announce the proposed framework through a Federal Register notice early this year.