Eagle permits could help developers

Government proposes rules to make it a little easier to disturb birds

Posted: Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fifty thousand bald eagles - plenty of them at the Juneau landfill - prove that the national bird isn't endangered in Alaska and never has been.

Hall Anderson / Ketchikan Daily News
Hall Anderson / Ketchikan Daily News

That doesn't mean one can kill eagles here willy-nilly, however. They're protected by the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, as well as the 1918 Migratory Bird Act.

Nevertheless, the federal government is proposing to make it a little easier to disturb them.

"The new program may provide some opportunities for permitting activities that were not allowed before," said Bruce Woods, spokesman for Fish and Wildlife in Alaska.

The agency last year took the rest of the nation's bald eagles off the endangered species list. The agency had to make sure eagle populations wouldn't backslide as a result.

Since then, the agency has been writing a permit program to allow "incidental take" of eagles. This month it released a draft environmental assessment of the permit program.

It's designed to balance protection of eagle populations "while providing the flexibility necessary for people to manage their land and businesses," according to the agency.

Landowners still won't be able to go after eagles intentionally. But they'll be able to get permits for other activities that might harm or disturb eagles. As long as they follow the terms of the permit, they'll be immune from criminal litigation if any eagles are harmed.

The maximum number of permits issued in an area will be based on how many eagles live there. The agency will release those numbers in October.

Alaska has between 50,000 and 70,000 eagles, Woods said.

In Alaska, where the Endangered Species Act didn't apply to eagles, the agency has been using a set of voluntary guidelines on avoiding harm to eagles - how far away one could safely blast from a nesting tree, for instance.

Landowners who follow the guidelines are less likely to get sued if any eagles are harmed, but the agency has the discretion to prosecute.

New national guidelines were based on the Alaska ones, Woods said.

"We've been operating under (the Eagle Act) for years," he said.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act is considered less restrictive than the Endangered Species Act. But Alaska federal enforcers have invoked it. Violating the Eagle Act can result in a $100,000 criminal fine and a year of prison.

Homer Electric Association and Juneau's utility, Alaska Electric Light & Power Co., have been among the utility companies that have faced enforcement in the past for Eagle Act violations.

AEL&P was sentenced earlier this year to pay $125,000 in fines and restitution after two contractors building the Lake Dorothy hydroelectric dam each blasted the same eagle's nest.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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