By Ros Krasny
WASHINGTON, Dec 6 (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Friday extended the length of permits allowing wind farms and other operations to accidentally kill protected eagles, drawing fire from wildlife conservationists.
The move to offer permits of up to 30 years, up from a maximum of five years, had been urged by the wind energy industry but was attacked by a leading wildlife group as a "stunningly bad move."
The Interior Department said the change in policy would help protect eagles and allow the development of renewable energy and other projects designed to operate for decades.
"Renewable energy development is vitally important to our nation's future, but it has to be done in the right way," said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
The change will provide legal protection for the likely lifespan of wind farms that obtain permits and undertake "advanced conservation practices" to avoid killing bald eagles, the bird depicted on the national seal of the United States, and gold eagles.
Companies must also commit to take additional measures if they exceed their permit limits or if new information suggests eagle populations are being affected.
The National Audobon Society, a bird-focused conservation group, said Interior's move was misguided and that the group was keeping "all options" open to challenge the rule.
"Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check," Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold said in a statement. "It's outrageous that the government is sanctioning the killing of America's symbol, the Bald Eagle."
In a blog posting, John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association, said the permit program would protect more eagles, not less.
The group said its industry does more to address its impacts on eagles than other, greater sources of eagle fatalities known to wildlife experts.
The AWEA pointed out that the eagle "take" permit "was not developed for nor is it specific to the wind industry"
The permits can be sought by "all sources of human-caused eagle mortality," including oil and gas exploration and production, mining, military bases, airports, cell towers and utility lines, AWEA said.
Thousands of birds of various species - not just eagles - are known to die in the United States each year in collisions with giant wind turbines, power lines and other structures.
Fatalities of golden eagles at modern wind facilities represent less than 2 percent of documented sources of human-caused eagle deaths, and "only a few" bald eagles have died in collisions in the history of the industry, AWEA said.
(Reporting by Ros Krasny; editing by Andrew Hay)