If you are a hunter and accidentally shoot an endangered eagle, you could go to jail and you will certainly have a criminal record. If you are a wind turbine company, you kill 100 eagles a year and pay a token fine.  An estimated 75 to 110 golden eagles die at a wind-power generation operation in Altamont, California each year. That is about one eagle for every 8 megawatts of energy produced yet no one is in Federal prison. 

Why the favoritism? The latter is an alternative energy darling of the US government. But if we care about birds and not partisan rationalizations, there is good news: A new study maps potential wind-power sites and nesting patterns of the birds reveals sweet spots, where potential for wind power is greatest with a lower threat to nesting eagles.

Brad Fedy, a professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, and Jason Tack, a PhD student at Colorado State University, took nesting data from a variety of areas across Wyoming, and created models using a suite of environmental variables and referenced them against areas with potential for wind development.

"We can't endanger animals and their habitats in making renewable energy projects happen," said Fedy. "Our work shows that it's possible to guide development of sustainable energy projects, while having the least impact on wildlife populations." 

Golden eagles are large-ranging predators of conservation concern in the United States. With the right data, stakeholders can use the modeling techniques the researchers employed to reconcile other sustainable energy projects with ecological concerns.

"Golden eagles aren't the only species affected by these energy projects, but they grab people's imaginations," said Fedy. "We hope that our research better informs collaboration between the renewable energy industry and land management agencies." 

The map predictions cannot replace on-the-ground monitoring for potential risk of wind turbines on wildlife populations, though they provide industry and managers a useful framework to first assess potential development.

 Published in PLOS ONE.