There are more battles going on in Wyoming than just Liz Cheney’s failed attempt to keep her House seat after trying to impeach Donald Trump. Wyoming is also the home of one of the largest habitats of the golden eagle. Their numbers have stabilized in recent years thanks to conservation efforts, but they are considered to be on the edge of slipping back into the endangered species category if they lose too many more. That’s where the new push for wind energy comes into the picture. Energy companies eager to take advantage of federal green energy subsidies are still putting up wind turbines in Wyoming at a frantic pace, with many of them being right in the golden eagle’s prime hunting and nesting territory. It’s estimated that hundreds of the birds have died in turbine blades in the past few years and it’s only getting worse. But scientists claim that climate change will kill off the birds also, so it’s a case of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” (Associated Press)
The rush to build wind farms to combat climate change is colliding with preservation of one of the U.S. West’s most spectacular predators — the golden eagle — as the species teeters on the edge of decline.
Ground zero in the conflict is Wyoming, a stronghold for golden eagles that soar on 7-foot (2-meter) wings and a favored location for wind farms. As wind turbines proliferate, scientists say deaths from collisions could drive down golden eagle numbers considered stable at best.
Yet climate change looms as a potentially greater threat: Rising temperatures are projected to reduce golden eagle breeding ranges by more than 40% later this century, according to a National Audubon Society analysis.
The AP interviewed some of the scientists who are working to save the golden eagles, but they are primarily working on tagging them and testing them for lead poisoning. (Another serious challenge faced by the birds.) Dr. Charles Preston of the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming said that they are working on ways to prevent more eagle deaths, but nobody is suggesting stopping the construction of new wind turbines in the mountains.
You aren’t hearing any of the louder voices in the green energy movement shedding many tears for the golden eagles. Apparently, that’s just the price of doing business. But let’s compare and contrast that with a different bird. The humble Gunnison sage-grouse is found in rural areas of Colorado and has also been declining in numbers. When it was learned that the federal government was planning to auction off oil drilling leases in the area, activists rushed into court and convinced the Biden administration to cancel the leases to save the precious grouse species.
Doesn’t the golden eagle deserve at least the same amount of respect and protection as the sage-grouse? If you actually cared about the survival of the birds, of course it would. But this has never been about the birds. This is a fight to shut down the oil and gas industry in any way possible and force everyone to move to renewable energy. The sage grouse is a convenient excuse to be used as needed whereas the golden eagle is simply collateral damage in the ongoing culture wars over the viability of our energy grid.
That attitude shows up on a regular basis during public debates. A board member from The Climate + Energy Project in Kansas penned an op-ed for the Kansas City Star just this week on the subject. He admits that wind turbines kill a lot of birds, but says “that’s a distraction from bigger problems.”
Yes, wind turbines do kill birds. A 2014 study cited by the United States Geological Survey estimated that 368,000 bird deaths are caused by wind turbines annually. But there are factors in North America more deadly to birds than wind turbines: climate change, unregulated harvesting and habitat loss, which have caused a decline of 3 billion birds (29% of the total population) over the last 50 years.
The complexity of this issue presents a wicked problem with no simple answer, and any solution requires collaboration across multiple jurisdictions. What is clear, however, is that the Overbrook forum reflects a growing distrust in science among many members of the public. As a result, people whose job it is to address these wicked problems — including climate change, affordable housing and health equity — have an increasingly difficult time meeting people where they are.
So there you have it from a self-described expert on “clean energy and energy justice.” If the Gunnison sage-grouse goes extinct, it’s a disaster. The world will be a darker and poorer place without it. But if the golden eagle disappears it’s a distraction. And something else would probably have killed off the eagles anyway. Do you see how this works? As usual, pay less attention to what they say and more attention to what they do. The hypocrisy is staggering, but it’s also ubiquitous.