BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A wind energy company was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay more than $8 million in fines and restitution after at least 150 eagles were killed over the past decade at its wind farms in eight states, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
NextEra Energy subsidiary ESI Energy pleaded guilty to three counts of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act during a Tuesday court appearance in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was charged criminally in the deaths of nine eagles at three of its wind farms in Wyoming and New Mexico.
In addition to those deaths, ESI acknowledged the deaths of golden and bald eagles at 50 wind farms affiliated with ESI and NextEra since 2012. The birds died in eight states, prosecutors said: Wyoming, California, New Mexico, North Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Arizona and Illinois.
The birds are killed when they fly into the blades of wind turbines. Some ESI turbines killed multiple eagles and because the carcasses are not always found, officials said the number killed was likely higher than the 150 birds cited by prosecutors in court documents.
NextEra's plea deal comes amid a push by President Joe Biden for more renewable energy from wind, solar and other sources to help reduce climate changing emissions. It also follows a renewed commitment by federal wildlife officials under Biden to enforce protections for eagles and other birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, after criminal prosecutions were halted under former President Donald Trump.
It’s illegal to kill or harm eagles under federal law.
The bald eagle — the U.S. national symbol — was removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2007, following a dramatic recovery from widespread decimation due to harmful pesticides and other problems. Wildlife officials say more than 300,000 bald eagles now occupy the U.S., not including Alaska.
Golden eagles have not fared as well, with populations considered stable but under pressure from wind farms, collisions with vehicles, illegal shootings and poisoning from lead ammunition. There are an estimated 31,800 golden eagles in the Western U.S., according to a study released last week by leading eagle researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other entities.
More than 2,000 golden eagles are killed annually due to human causes, or about 60% of all deaths, the researchers said. The study concluded that golden eagle deaths “will likely increase in the future” because of wind energy development and other human activities.
Companies historically have been able to avoid prosecution under the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty if they take steps to avoid bird deaths and seek permits for those that occur. ESI did not seek such a permit, authorities said.
The company was warned prior to building the wind farms in New Mexico and Wyoming that they would kill birds, but it proceeded anyway and at times ignored advice from federal wildlife officials about how to minimize the deaths, according to court documents.
“For more than a decade, ESI has violated (wildlife) laws, taking eagles without obtaining or even seeking the necessary permit," said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division in a statement.
ESI agreed under a plea deal to spend up to $27 million during its five-year probationary period on measures to prevent future eagle deaths. That includes shutting down turbines at times when eagles are more likely to be present.
Despite those measures, wildlife officials anticipate that some eagles still could die. When that happens, the company will pay $29,623 per dead eagle, under the agreement.
NextEra President Rebecca Kujawa said collisions of birds with wind turbines are unavoidable accidents that should not be criminalized. She said the Juno Beach, Florida-based company —which bills itself as the world's largest utility company by market value — is committed to reducing damage to wildlife from its projects.
“We disagree with the government's underlying enforcement activity,” Kujawa said in a statement. “Building any structure, driving any vehicle, or flying any airplane carries with it a possibility that accidental eagle and other bird collisions may occur.”