A bitterly contested wind farm proposed for Goodhue County got the go-ahead Wednesday to pursue a permit that would allow it to legally kill or injure eagles, in what could be the first case of federal authorities issuing a license to kill the protected national symbol.

The 48-turbine project would kill at most eight to 15 eagles a year, a number that would not harm the local population, federal officials said in a letter to state regulators. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said its estimate does not include possible strategies to reduce the number of eagles killed and, that if a permit is eventually granted, the goal would be a much lower figure.

The small wind project near Red Wing has drawn national attention as one of the first to try the government's controversial new strategy of managing the sometimes lethal conflict between birds, bats and the towering turbines.

Several of the new federal "incidental-take" permits are in the works, including one in North Carolina and one in Oregon, but none has been granted.

The Goodhue County project, now owned by New Era Wind Farm, is the farthest along in the process, said Kelly Fuller of the American Bird Conservancy, a national advocacy group. "That is too many bald eagles," she said of the new estimate. "This is the kind of project that could be an enormous black eye for [the] wind industry."

Peter Mastic, owner of New Era, did not return a phone call on Wednesday seeking comment.

New Era Wind, previously AWA Goodhue Wind, applied for a permit four years ago, and still faces several regulatory hurdles that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is likely to consider during hearings later this year. It's already faced numerous legal actions and fierce resistance by many in the largely agricultural community who have raised concerns about noise, shadows cast by the rotating turbines and possible effects on health.

The company has conducted bird and bat surveys, and filed a bird and bat protection plan, which the PUC has yet to consider. The letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service, plus comments by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, came in response to that plan.

Tony Sullins, field supervisor for the regional Fish and Wildlife office, said in the letter that there are about 418 eagles around the project's 20-square-mile footprint. Earlier documents said the area has about 10 active nests, and the project's opponents say they have recently identified two more. In addition, a few golden eagles have been seen in the area.

Sullins' letter said that the wildlife agency's estimate of eight to 15 eagle deaths a year "is a worst-case scenario," and not enough to endanger them. As a result, the agency is willing to consider the company's request for a permit that would include strategies for significantly reducing the number of potential kills.

In an interview, Sullins said possibilities include moving turbines away from risky spots, turning them off during migrations or other times when there are a lot of eagles in the area, and removing animal carcasses and roadkill, which are a major food source for the birds.

"[The company] has put on the table a lot of things they are willing to discuss," Sullins said Wednesday. The company has said that it estimates a kill of one eagle per year.

The risk to golden eagles is low, the letter said, one to two possible deaths over the 30-year life of the project, the letter said.

But there is no permit for killing golden eagles in this part of the country, and if one were to collide with a turbine in Goodhue County, "it would be considered a prosecutable offense," the letter said.

In that situation, Sullins said, the U.S. Department of Justice would decide whether to prosecute and the company's efforts to reduce the risk could be taken into consideration.

But Fuller, echoing arguments made by local opponents, maintains that the site is inappropriate for a wind project. The DNR has ranked it of "moderate" risk to wildlife, compared with some other pending state projects that are rated as "high."

Fuller noted that, as the Fish and Wildlife Service states in its letter, none of the risk models or bird protection plans has ever been tested.

"There are other places in Minnesota without these problems," she said.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394