By Josephine Marcotty
MINNEAPOLIS — A large number of eagles really are active around the footprint of a controversial wind farm under development in Goodhue County, according to a wildlife survey the developer conducted this fall under orders from state regulators.
But the count has been inflated by local opponents who are purposely attracting birds by dumping animal carcasses on the site as part of an organized eagle-baiting campaign, AWA Goodhue Wind, the project developer, said in filings with the state Public Utilities Commission, or PUC.
The charges have not been verified by state investigators. But true or not, they represent yet another escalation in a fight between the developer and local residents that has split the community and which is occurring at other sites around the country as the wind industry evolves.
The 50-turbine wind farm, approved this year by the PUC, will be located on 12,000 acres that are home to Bald and Golden Eagles, as well as other protected birds and bats.
Officials from Goodhue Wind, who did not return phone calls Friday, have made changes in the project’s design in response to concerns from state and federal wildlife officials. But there is a growing realization nationally that the clean energy from wind is having an effect on wildlife.
The Goodhue County Board and other local governments and some residents have fought the project for more than two years over concerns about setbacks, noise and flicker from the massive blades. The fight over birds and bats emerged earlier this year when residents began documenting eagle nests in the spring and dozens of migrating eagles who hung around the area this fall.
Both Bald and Golden Eagles are protected by federal law.
To date there are only five known instances in North America of Bald Eagles killed by wind turbines, said Rich Davis, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has been monitoring the project for two years. But the Goodhue project is the first to be constructed in an area widely used by Bald and Golden Eagles for nesting and migrating, he said.
“I’m confident that there are birds using the area whether there is baiting or not,” he said. “I would definitely say that there is risk at that site.”
Davis said he’s just as concerned with the number of bats that the survey turned up, including rare northern long-eared bats and little brown bats. The project, in short, is likely to be a large experiment in how and if both species can accommodate turbines, he said.
Such concerns prompted the PUC to order Goodhue Wind to conduct a wildlife survey and develop a protection plan, which was filed on Thursday. The company has been working with both state and federal wildlife officials.
The document says collisions with eagles will be rare, but projections are uncertain because the surveys “have been seriously compromised by an active baiting program being conducted by project opponents.”
Two Golden Eagles, which are on the federal endangered species list, were spotted near the site of a future turbine, the report said. One was soaring, and the other was attracted to “an active baiting location.”
Opponents of the project said there is no baiting going on, and that the company is making the allegations to obscure the true number of eagles in the area.
“They think we are purposely taking dead animals and throwing them in our fields to feed the eagles,” said Ann Buck, who owns a nearby dairy farm.
Buck said an investigator from the State Board of Animal Health came by to check on a complaint from Goodhue Wind about a dead calf in her pasture. It had been stillborn by one of her cows, she said. If there are animal carcasses that have been dumped, she said, they are likely put out as coyote bait, not eagle bait.
That might be true, said Carl Denkinger, an agricultural consultant with the board of animal health. He said he’s received six complaints from the wind company about animal carcasses, but only two seemed suspicious. Piglet carcasses were dumped out in the field he said.
“This was done for a purpose,” he said. “What that purpose is I’m not prepared to say.”