Federal officials want more study of North Dakota wind farm

By James MacPherson, Associated Press

State regulators signaled likely approval for a $175 million wind farm in north-central North Dakota on Tuesday, but a federal wildlife official believes more study is needed on the potential dangers the project poses to bald eagles.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — State regulators signaled likely approval for a $175 million wind farm in north-central North Dakota on Tuesday, but a federal wildlife official believes more study is needed on the potential dangers the project poses to bald eagles.

"I would not put this in a low-risk category," Kevin Shelley, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's state supervisor for ecological services, told reporters.

Rolette Power Development LLC is proposing the 59-tubine, 100 megawatt wind farm proposed on nearly 15,000 acres of land between Rolette and Rugby. After the company submitted its permit to the state and a public hearing was held this summer, the federal agency identified two bald eagle nests just a few miles outside of the project's footprint.

The company amended its permit application to include additional measures to minimize the impact to bald eagles, including working with landowners and local officials to remove dead livestock and roadkill that could attract the protected birds.

North Dakota has no rules that require how far an eagle's nest may be from a wind turbine, so state regulators and federal wildlife officials met at the state Capitol on Tuesday to discuss better coordination for determining such a thing.

Shelley said the federal agency considers bald eagle nests 10 miles from a wind turbine to be an adequate "filter."

The Public Service Commission is slated to vote on the project Wednesday. Commission chairwoman Julie Fedorchak said she expects the three-member, all-Republican panel to approve the project.

The federal penalty for killing a bald eagle is a $5,000 fine for a first offense, Shelley said.

Fedorchak said that's something company will have to consider.

"Ultimately, if they kill a bald eagle, that burden is on them financially," she said. "They know they are the ones bearing the risk on this."

The number of bald eagle nests in North Dakota has soared in the past decade along with a big increase in electric-generating wind towers, raising concerns that more birds might run into turbine blades.

State Game and Fish department data show 171 bald eagle nests have been identified this year, up from 28 in 2005. Over roughly the same period, nearly 1,000 turbines in some 20 counties have been erected with the capacity to generate a combined total of nearly 2,000 megawatts of wind power.

More than additional 1,000 wind turbines are planned or under construction, data show.

Shelley said only one bald eagle has been killed within a wind farm area. It happened this spring in the western part of the state, where the eagle was found within 150 feet of a wind turbine but a necropsy failed to determine if the bird was killed by the turbine or hit by a vehicle.

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