By Ros Krasny
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Friday extended the length of permits that allow wind farms and other operations to accidentally kill protected eagles to 30 years, drawing fire from wildlife conservationists.
The move to offer permits of up to three decades, from a previous maximum of five years, had been urged by the wind energy industry but was attacked by a leading wildlife group as a "stunningly bad move."
The Interior Department said the change in policy would help protect eagles, which can be killed when they collide with wind turbines and other structures, and allow the development of renewable energy and other projects designed to operate for decades.
"Renewable energy development is vitally important to our nation's future, but it has to be done in the right way," said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
Wildlife conservationists, however, disputed the claims that eagles would be protected by the permit extensions.
The change will provide legal protection for the likely lifespan of wind farms that obtain permits and undertake "advanced conservation practices" to avoid killing bald eagles, the bird depicted on the national seal of the United States, and gold eagles.
Companies must also commit to take additional measures if they exceed their permit limits or if new information suggests eagle populations are being affected.
The National Audobon Society, a bird-focused conservation group, said Interior's move was misguided and that the group was keeping "all options" open to challenge the rule.
"Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check," Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold said in a statement. "It's outrageous that the government is sanctioning the killing of America's symbol, the bald eagle."
In a blog posting, John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), said the permit program would protect more eagles, not fewer. The group said its industry does more to address its impacts on eagles than other, greater causes of eagle fatalities known to wildlife experts.
The AWEA pointed out that the eagle "take" permit "was not developed for, nor is it specific to, the wind industry".
The permits can be sought by "all sources of human-caused eagle mortality," including oil and gas exploration and production, mining, military bases, airports, cell towers and utility lines, AWEA said.
Thousands of birds of various species - not just eagles - are known to die in the United States each year in collisions with giant wind turbines, power lines and other structures.
Fatalities of golden eagles at modern wind facilities represent less than 2 percent of documented sources of human-caused eagle deaths, and "only a few" bald eagles have died in collisions in the history of the industry, AWEA said.
The move is part of the Obama administration's push to promote wind and other forms of so-called green energy.
But the objections by conservationists point to a deepening divide with the Obama administration over its drive to develop alternative energy despite hazards to eagles and other protected species.
It is not known many eagles are killed each year at wind farms, which are not required to report eagle deaths. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates wind facilities have caused the deaths of 85 bald and golden eagles nationwide since 1997.
That compares to the 50 to 70 golden eagles that are known to be killed each year by the wind turbine arrays at Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in northern California, according to Doug Bell, wildlife program manager with the East Bay Regional Park District.
(Additional reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Idaho; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Ken Wills)