Eagle nest puts brakes on Xcel Energy wind turbines
WALTHAM — Sometimes, Mother Nature has a different plan.
A pair of adult bald eagles and at least one eaglet have been discovered in a tree in a windbreak among three wind turbines near Minnesota Highway 56 and Mower County Road 1 in Sargeant Township, said Pat Flowers, manger of water and remediation for Xcel Energy.
"In short, Mom and Dad are raising their little one," Flowers chuckled.
The nest was built after the wind turbine construction and discovered in March, said Randy Fordice, spokesman for Xcel Energy, and was reported to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service authorities.
Flowers noted the eagles appear to be fairly comfortable flying around the turbines. What was considered unusual was that the eagles chose to nest in an area where there was no significant body of water.
"It's quite distant to find something suitable for the young ones," he said. "This really isn't prime eagle habitat, so I'm not sure why they chose to nest there."
The eagle population in the region has "blossomed" during the past decade. When the Pleasant Valley Wind Farm was built, surveys were done to ensure no eagles would be in close proximity to the turbines.
One survey conducted in 2014 showed that before the facility was built, there were three eagles' nests in the area, two of which were active at the time. The closest nest was about 3.8 miles away from the turbines.
The most recent survey, conducted in March 2016, discovered nine active bald eagle nests, two of which were within 1.5 miles of active turbines. The closest nest was only 150 yards away from a turbine.
"We have to take every step we can to protect the eagles and not cause them any harm," Flowers added.
Although bald eagles are no longer listed as an endangered species, killing one is still a felony punishable by a $250,000 fine and prison time.
Xcel can apply for a permit to help offer some protection if an eagle is accidentally injured or killed from a turbine, Flower said. Otherwise, they are still subjected to the law.
"There's no 'get out of jail free card.' We worked with Fish and Wildlife, DNR and Commerce to make sure all the proper steps were taken," Flowers said. "They said, 'You're doing exactly what you're supposed to do.'"
So for now, Xcel has instituted buffers for contractors to make sure any individual on the ground is at least 660 feet away from a nest and set aerial buffer zones of 800-meter radius to make sure the eagles would have a somewhat safe air space.
"When we discovered the nest, we immediately curtailed and shut off the turbines," Flowers said. "We're not taking any chances. Unfortunately, the eagles moved closer to us instead of farther away."
Flowers noted the turbines will remain inactive throughout the summer while the flight pattern of the eagles continues to be monitored by the state. However, it's possible to curtail more turbines if necessary.
Xcel won't know for sure until the fledglings leave the nest, possibly around late October, and if the eagles choose to continue returning to the nest. Around that time, the company may apply for a permit to remove or relocate the nest — known as an Eagle Take Permit — but as of now, it's a waiting game.
"We've always been really careful in impacting natural resources and the critters around us," Flowers said. "Wind energy is no different. It's important to our customers,and the different First Nations living around this area."