Chapter 1: Regulatory Context, Study Methods, and Voluntary Development Guidelines

Wind Energy Development in the Context of Federal Wildlife Statutes

Updated September 01, 2021

An array of federal laws and regulations in the U.S. are designed to protect wildlife and the environment from adverse impacts of human development activities, including wind energy.

Federal Statutes

Endangered Species Act (ESA)

The purpose of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is under the purview of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in the case of land-based energy development, is to conserve endangered and threatened species and the ecosystems on which they depend. The ESA provides protections to wildlife and plants that have been added to the federal lists of endangered and threatened species and provides protection to species in the listing process in more limited circumstances. A species is added to the list when it is determined to be endangered or threatened due to any of the following factors:

  • Present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range
  • Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes
  • Disease or predation
  • The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms
  • Other natural or manmade factors affecting its survival

The level of protection provided by the ESA can vary depending on whether the species is an animal or plant, and for threatened species, whether the Service has promulgated special rules for the species. In general, however, the ESA makes it unlawful to “take” a listed species, where take is defined as “… to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct.”

Potential take of a listed species that occurs incidental to a lawful activity (such as wind energy generation) is known as “incidental take.” Wind project developers work with the Service’s Ecological Services field office in the state where the proposed project is located to determine if there is potential risk to any listed species of wildlife as a result of their project. If a potential risk for incidental take is identified, the developer may choose to apply for an incidental take permit (ITP) for the wind energy project. The ESA requires that, as part of the ITP application process, developers submit a habitat conservation plan (HCP) for listed species to the Service that includes commitments to minimization and mitigation measures to offset the impacts of the potential take. Even if the developer has determined there is no risk of take, if the project requires federal permitting, approvals, or funding, consultation with the Service may be required.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA)

Passed in 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) is one of the earliest federal environmental laws and is considered the cornerstone of migratory bird conservation and protection in the United States. The MBTA is under the purview of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and implements four treaties that provide for international protection of over 1,000 species of migratory birds, including eagles and other raptors, waterfowl, shorebirds, seabirds, wading birds, and passerines.

The MBTA is a “strict liability statute,” meaning that actions resulting in take, such as causing a fatality of a protected species, are a violation of the MBTA regardless of intent, knowledge, or negligence. Historically, the Service has considered the MBTA’s take prohibition to extend to incidental take. However, the question of whether the MBTA prohibits incidental take has been treated differently by courts across the U.S. and is under consideration by policy makers.

Bald & Gold Eagles Protection Act (BGEPA)

Bald and golden eagles are afforded additional legal protection in the U.S. through the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA), which is also under the purview of the Service. Like the ESA it prohibits take, but it expands this definition to include “disturb” – that is, “agitating or bothering an eagle to a degree that causes, or is likely to cause, injury or either a decrease in productivity or nest abandonment by substantially interfering with normal breeding, feeding, or sheltering behavior.”

BGEPA gives the Service the authority to develop a program to allow for eagle take. In 2009, the Service issued a final rule on two new permit regulations that specifically authorized limited, non-purposeful (incidental) take of bald and golden eagles “consistent with the goal of stable or increasing breeding populations.” The rules have undergone subsequent revisions. Wind energy companies model the potential risk of a wind project to take eagles and apply for a permit. While not strictly required by regulation, applicants typically prepare an Eagle Conservation Plan (ECP) to submit with their permit application. The ECP describes steps a company will implement to avoid, minimize, and mitigate any predicted eagle take to demonstrate that the permit application meets the relevant regulatory criteria.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to consider the various impacts of their actions on the human and natural environment. NEPA analysis is generally required where projects require federal permits, approvals, or funding. The federal agency responsible for approving funding or authorization for a wind project must conduct a NEPA review that includes an analysis of how the federal action would impact the environment as well as an analysis of how alternatives to the federal action may impact the environment. This environmental assessment either concludes with a Finding of No Significant Impact or leads to a more detailed environmental impact statement and a Record of Decision that states whether the project was approved, and if so, what mitigation and monitoring plans, if any, are required. In certain circumstances, the federal action may be categorically excluded from NEPA review and may proceed without an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.

Role of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Service, through various branches such as Ecological Services, Migratory Birds, and regional and field offices located throughout the country, administers and enforces the ESA, BGEPA, and MBTA. The Service may also write or review another agency’s NEPA document. Its role includes the listing and consideration for listing of species as threatened or endangered and the enforcement of laws protecting listed species. Wind energy project developers are encouraged to consult with the Service’s local field offices regarding potential wildlife risks that a proposed project may need to consider and address.

In 2012, the Service published voluntary Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines, a result of collaboration with federal agencies, state wildlife agencies, tribal and wind industry representatives, conservation organizations, and academics to develop a set of guidelines designed to support wind energy developers in taking a systematic approach to evaluating and addressing potential risks to wildlife.