By Laura Zuckerman
April 30 (Reuters) - Conservationists plan to sue the U.S. government over new rules they say loosen protection for eagles killed by wind farm turbines, arguing they threaten decades of protection that saved the bald eagle, America's national emblem, from extinction.
The American Bird Conservancy notified the administration on Wednesday of its intent to sue over the changes, which grant wind farms permission to kill eagles accidentally for a period of 30 years without having to apply for a new permit, rather than five years as previously required.
U.S. law bans killing bald and golden eagles without a permit, except for narrow purposes such as scientific research.
In 2009 the government expanded the permits to include other activities, including renewable energy.
The new 30-year permit rule, issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December, is aimed at further encouraging the development of renewable energy sources such as wind power, but conservationists want them overturned.
Experts differ on how many eagles are killed by wind farms each year. The Fish and Wildlife service estimates that 85 bald and golden eagles have died this way since 1997.
Doug Bell, wildlife program manager with the East Bay Regional Park District in Northern California, says that 50 to 70 golden eagles are killed each year in his area.
In the required notice of intent to sue the U.S. government, the American Bird Conservancy argued the change violates federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, contains no scientific justification and was generated without the benefit of an assessment of the nation's eagle populations.
The rule "undermines the nation's longstanding commitment to conservation of eagles," which have immense cultural and symbolic value, the conservancy said in legal documents.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Laury Parramore said the Interior Department agency would not comment on pending litigation.
Lindsay North, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association, did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. (Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Michael Perry)