Americans love golden and bald eagles. The majestic birds of prey are the nation’s symbol, and the removal of the bald eagle from the endangered species list in 2007 is justifiably a source of national pride. Protection of the species is usually associated with the modern environmental movement, but in fact the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act became law in 1940. So any new threat to their survival is likely to be a cause of concern for citizens across the nation. This reality likely accounts for the recent upsurge in criticism of wind turbines for posing what appears to be a serious danger to eagle populations, especially those in the western states.
There have been 85 confirmed bald and golden eagle deaths attributed to wind turbines in the past 13 years, according to a study by a group of biologists working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that was released in September. Joel Pagel, the study's lead author, said six of the 85 fallen eagles were bald eagles, as described in a recent opinion article in the Wall Street Journal. The figures are distressing, but they ought to be viewed in a common-sense context: How do those deaths compare with other things that kill the birds?
A review of highway safety data reveals more than 30,000 Americans died in automobile crashes last year. In many years, the number of fatalities was much higher, reaching a peak of nearly 55,000 in 1972. Thanks to aggressive enforcement of drunk driving laws and improved active and passive safety equipment in vehicles, the trend has been steadily downward in recent years. But cars and trucks on the road aren’t a threat only to human beings. According to state and federal officials, 222 bald eagles were killed by moving vehicles between 1987 and 2008 in just one state, Michigan.
Far more distressing for defenders of avian wildlife are the number of birds killed by jet aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration’s latest compilation of bird strike data reports, “The number of strikes annually reported has increased 5.8-fold, from 1,851 in 1990 to a record 10,726 in 2012.” In the period covered by the FAA data, 131,096 birds died in reported strikes. There is no way to know for certain, but odds are more than a few eagles were among those killed by jet aircraft.
Despite these losses, nobody is proposing that the nation’s highways be closed or that commercial jets be grounded in order to protect birds in general, or more specifically the justly treasured golden and bald eagles. That's for good reason: The fact that we have been able to remove the bald eagle from the endangered species list says that those losses are not imperiling the bird's survival. The conservation methods are working.
Common sense says every human infrastructure project, from roads and subdivisions to airport terminals and office towers to, yes, wind turbines, carry some level of risk for humans and animals alike. Finding the right balance between the benefits of that infrastructure and suitable measures to protect wildlife is not always easy, but it can be done. The challenge will be more easily met when advocates of all kinds stick to the facts and calm reason.