Newswise — A New Mexico State University professor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences is conducting research on golden eagles being killed by wind turbines and other human-related factors.

Gary Roemer, professor for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology, is conducting a research project to identify whether certain factors impact golden eagle populations. Some of the factors that impact the eagles are electrocutions, vehicle strikes and illegal shootings, but another more recent factor is wind turbine strikes, Roemer said. 

From 1997 to 2012, there were 85 eagle fatalities reported in 32 facilities around the United States. More than 78 percent of those fatalities occurred from 2008 to 2012. Roemer said there is no way to know exactly how many eagles are killed, “as monitoring programs are usually not in place at wind energy facilities.” 

His research is focused on finding out where the eagles that have been killed come from. Roemer said eagles “breed throughout the Western U.S., Alaska and throughout portions of Canada, but they can move a lot.” Many eagles from northern portions of the continent, such as Alaska and Canada, migrate to southern locales in the winter, including New Mexico and Texas. 

According to the American Wind Energy Association, there are 863 wind turbines in New Mexico, generating enough clean electricity to power about 334,000 homes. During 2016, wind energy provided 10.95 percent of all in-state electricity production. Although wind energy has many environmental benefits, it also has the potential to impact eagles and other wildlife.

“If you put a wind farm down here in New Mexico, you might not only be whacking New Mexico breeding birds, but you might be whacking birds that are breeding in Alaska or the Canadian Arctic,” Roemer said. 

In January 2017, under the Obama administration, a rule was implemented that allows wind-energy companies to accidentally kill or injure eagles while operating high-speed turbines for up to 30 years. That is six times longer than the former rule, which was five years. The rule change also increased the number of eagles the companies can be permitted to accidentally kill or injure, but only under certain conditions. 

Under the new rule, wind companies, other power providers, and other activities that might accidentally take eagles can obtain permits to accidentally kill eagles. For a company to obtain such a permit, they must demonstrate that they have taken all practical steps to avoid and minimize impacts, such as modifying power poles to reduce the risk of electrocution. This is to show that any incident that occurs is unavoidable.

As part of the research project, Roemer went to Coronation Gulf in Nunavut, Canada, and collaborated with Canadian wildlife biologists. They climbed into golden eagle nests to sample and band young eagles. Roemer said the nesting occupancy was apparently low this year. Out of approximately 30 nests that were surveyed, five of them were active, and they were able to sample seven eaglets. 

Roemer and his colleagues are using genetic methods and stable isotope analysis of feather samples from nestling golden eagles to determine if the eagles exhibit any population structure.

He said that by finding this information, “We might be able to figure out what kind of impact we’re having on golden eagles across the continent.” 

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