By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A Native American tribe in Oklahoma on Thursday registered its opposition to a U.S. government plan that would allow a wind farm to kill as many as three bald eagles a year despite special federal protections afforded the birds.
The stand taken by the Osage Nation against a proposed wind energy project on Indian lands in northeastern Oklahoma is based on the tribe's cultural and religious traditions tied to America's national symbol, tribal leaders said.
They spoke during an Internet forum arranged by conservationists seeking to draw attention to deaths of protected bald and golden eagles caused when they collide with turbines and other structures at wind farms.
The project proposed by Wind Capital Group of St. Louis would erect 94 wind turbines on 8,400 acres that the Osage Nation says contains key eagle-nesting habitat and migratory routes.
The permit application acknowledges that up to three bald eagles a year could be killed by the development over the 40-year life of the project.
"I can't come up with the words in English or Osage to put a value on how important these (eagles) are to us and to our everyday survival," said Scott BigHorse, assistant chief for the Osage Nation.
Wind Capital did not respond to a request for comment.
The fight in Oklahoma points to the deepening divide between some conservationists and the Obama administration over its push to clear the way for renewable energy development despite hazards to eagles and other protected species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Interior Department agency tasked with protecting eagles and other wildlife to ensure their survival, is not sure how many eagles have been killed each year by wind farms amid rapid expansion of the facilities under the Obama administration.
UNDERESTIMATED EAGLE DEATHS
Reporting is voluntary by wind companies whose facilities kill eagles, said Alicia King, spokeswoman for the agency's migratory bird program.
She estimated wind farms have caused 85 deaths of bald and golden eagles nationwide since 1997, with most occurring in the last three years as wind farms gained ground through federal and state grants and other government incentives.
Some eagle experts say federal officials are drastically underestimating wind farm-related eagle mortality. For example, a single wind turbine array in northern California, the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, is known to kill from 50 to 70 golden eagles a year, according to Doug Bell, wildlife program manager with the East Bay Regional Park District.
Golden eagle numbers in the vicinity are plummeting, with a death rate so high that the local breeding population can no longer replace itself, Bell said.
The U.S. government has predicted that a 1,000-turbine project planned for south-central Wyoming could kill as many as 64 eagles a year.
It is illegal to kill bald and golden eagles, either deliberately or inadvertently, under protections afforded them by two federal laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
In the past, federal permits allowing a limited number of eagle deaths were restricted to narrow activities such as scientific research.
But the Obama administration in 2009 broadened such permitting authority to include otherwise lawful activities like wind power developments.
Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking to lengthen the duration of those permits from five to 30 years to satisfy an emerging industry dependent on investors seeking stable returns.
Wind power representatives say concerns raised about eagle deaths are overblown. Fewer than 2 percent of all human-caused deaths of golden eagles occur at modern wind farms and only a few bald eagles deaths have been documented in the history of the industry - far less mortality than is attributed to such causes as poisoning or vehicle collisions, said the American Wind Energy Association spokesman Peter Kelley.
Conservationists say they support emissions-free energy but want the Obama administration to require rather than suggest that companies locate turbines away from eagle habitat.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler)