The plea agreement came after the federal government charged PacifiCorp with 34 misdemeanor counts of unlawfully taking golden eagles, hawks, and ravens in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This law makes it illegal for anyone to kill a protected bird by any means without first obtaining a permit.
The violations stem from accidental electrocutions of protected birds that occurred in proximity to the utility's power lines in rural areas of Wyoming.
PacifiCorp has killed 232 eagles in Wyoming from January 2007 to the present. The company, which pleaded guilty to all 34 counts, has been sentenced to pay a $510,000 criminal fine and an additional $900,000 in restitution and will spend the next five years on probation.
During this period, PacifiCorp has been ordered to spend $9.1 million to repair or replace its equipment to protect migratory birds from electrocution in Wyoming.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation, which began in 2007, linked excessive eagle mortalities to PacifiCorp's electrical distribution and transmission facilities in six Wyoming counties - Sweetwater, Washakie, Hot Springs, Park, Converse, and Natrona.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Wyoming filed federal charges against the company based on the findings of this investigation.
A few of the eagles electrocuted on PacifiCorp's power lines (Photo by Dominic Domenici courtesy USFWS)
"When companies refuse to be proactive, and don't undertake readily available measures to prevent the deaths of eagles and other migratory birds, we'll seek criminal charges," said Resident Agent in Charge Dominic Domenici, who oversees the Service's enforcement operations in Wyoming and Montana.
"With mounting pressures on these species and their habitat, we simply cannot allow industry to kill birds when proven measures exist that can greatly reduce powerline electrocutions."
Electrocution of eagles and other large birds can occur when a bird perches on the cross arm of a power pole and completes an electrical circuit by touching two energized wires or an energized wire and a ground.
Until this past year, PacifiCorp had failed to use readily available measures to address avian electrocutions in Wyoming – measures that could have saved numerous eagles and other birds, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
As reported by PacifiCorp, since 2007, at least 232 golden eagles, 46 hawks and 59 owls, along with 193 other migratory birds, were electrocuted on PacifiCorp facilities.
Under the terms of its plea agreement, PacifiCorp must implement an Avian Protection Plan for the state of Wyoming that will include retrofitting and modernizing its electrical distribution and transmission system to reduce eagle mortalities.
"PacifiCorp is committed to meeting the terms of this settlement and improving facilities in Wyoming to make them safer for eagles and other raptors," said Paul Radakovich, vice president, operations.
"We have long recognized the importance of protecting raptors from contact with our facilities and have had a robust protection and reporting plan since the 1980s," said Radakovich. "This plan was developed in consultation with and approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."
Radakovich says the eagle deaths occurred as wintering eagles concentrated in areas outside Worland due to an abundance of jackrabbits. When the magnitude of mortalities was discovered in late 2007, he says PacifiCorp immediately began retrofitting more than 2,700 power line structures in Wyoming to make them safer for raptors.
In 2008 PacifiCorp spent more than $2 million on avian protection in Wyoming and in 2009 it has spent more than $2.7 million in beginning the Wyoming avian protection plan implementation. Radakovich says the settlement announced Monday will further enhance these avian protection efforts throughout the state.
"Measures taken under Avian Protection Plans can make a tremendous difference for raptor populations," said Emily Jo Williams, who oversees management of the Migratory Bird Program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Mountain-Prairie Region. "Electrocutions drop when companies step up and meet their responsibilities for protecting eagles and other birds."
Restitution paid by the company will support research and projects to conserve golden eagles and other birds of prey in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Montana. Conservation organizations slated to receive funding include the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Hawk Watch International, the Wildlife Heritage Foundation of Wyoming, the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, and the Murie Audubon Society of Casper, Wyoming.
Dead eagles collected by federal and state officials are sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service's National Eagle Repository, where they are distributed to Native Americans for religious and cultural use.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.