There are 10 active eagle nests and many more of the protected birds flying through the neighborhood of a controversial wind farm proposed for Goodhue County, according to a new count that may prove critical to the project's future.
The number of birds could determine whether the developer, AWA Goodhue Wind, will be one of the nation's first wind farms to get a federal "incidental take'' license to legally kill or injure a specified number of eagles. Such permits are a new federal strategy aimed at managing the often-lethal conflict between birds, bats and turbine blades, and the question has drawn national attention to the small, 50-turbine project near Red Wing.
"It's definitely not as high [a number of eagles] as the Mississippi River," an area nearby that is a well-known winter hunting ground for the birds, said Margaret Rheude, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"But for an inland area, those are moderately high numbers."
The issue has stalled the Goodhue project for almost a year. In February, regulators delayed the project until the developer produced a plan to protect eagles, bats and other wildlife that might be affected by the towers.
In the first part of that plan, filed Tuesday with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), Goodhue Wind said a comprehensive ground and aerial survey of the 12,000- acre site and a two-mile buffer zone around the perimeter turned up seven active nests. Earlier this month, state biologists counted 10 active nests within a 10-mile radius -- a short distance for the high-soaring birds.
There were also many eagles that roosted or foraged in the area during the winter months, the company said in its report.
Company officials did not respond to a request for comment. But local residents who have fought the project for years said they are still hopeful that the impact on wildlife will be its undoing -- vindicating their belief that wind farms must be sited carefully to minimize their impacts on nature and neighbors.
"This project, with all the raptors in the area, I am guessing will be classified as a high-risk project for incidental take," said Mary Hartman, a local resident. "I don't know how they think they will mitigate their way around that."
The new federal permit process was devised in 2009 as a compromise between the demand for clean energy from wind farms and the rising concern over the estimated hundreds of thousands of birds and bats that they kill every year.
Rheude said the company's report is not complete. She said she will ask for a more detailed accounting of eagles foraging and roosting in the area on specific days, which might help determine if their presence was driven by weather or other conditions. The company said in its report that eagles seemed to congregate when animal carcasses were available for food and that when the food was gone the eagles left too.
Rheude also said counts by the company during the fall may have missed a portion of the birds' migration period in September and October.
In addition, this year's mild winter may have increased the number of eagles that stayed in the area because there was more open water and prey available, she said.
Nevertheless, the Fish and Wildlife Service "will have to come up with a number on how many eagles we think will be affected," she said.
When that and other environmental assessments are done, the agency and the company will have to negotiate a plan to mitigate the project's impact on birds and come to an agreement on how many dead or injured eagles will be permitted, she said.
But as long as they come to agreement, a permit to legally kill eagles may be granted sometime this year, she said.
"We have a lot of eagles in Minnesota," she said. "We will have a higher threshold of eagles that could be taken without affecting the overall population."
The project faces other barriers, including an appeal by local property owners to the Minnesota Court of Appeals challenging a state decision that overturned turbine set-back rules established by the county.
Josephine Marcotty 612-673-7394