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AP Exclusive: Wind energy, golden eagles collide in US West

Eagle researcher Charles “Chuck” Preston, left, carries a young golden eagle that was temporarily removed from its nest as part of research related to long-term population studies of the birds, near Cody, Wyo., June 15, 2022. Preston and other researchers are trying to find ways to reduce golden eagle deaths from collisions with wind turbines. (AP Photo / Matthew Brown)

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A golden eagle circles above Buffalo County, Wis., in February 2009. – Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via AP

Billings, Montana, correspondent Matthew Brown and video journalist Emma Tobin collaborated on an exclusive all-formats package that revealed how the booming development of clean wind power threatens the preservation of iconic golden eagles in the U.S. West.

Brown was looking into a potential story on growing threats to the eagle, one of the U.S. West’s most spectacular predators, when a scientist tipped him off to the federal indictment and conviction of a Florida-based utility whose wind turbines had struck and killed more than 100 of the birds in Wyoming.

After a spot story on that case,Brown decided to keep digging. The veteran environmental reporter worked sources,searched documents and interviewed experts,finding scientists concerned that although the golden eagle is itself vulnerable to climate change and other perils,the boom in wind turbines to counter climate change could lead to the decline of eagle populations which thrive on the same open,windy landscapes preferred by wind energy developers.

Combing through public records,Brown discovered the federal government had issued almost three dozen permits in recent years allowing wind companies and others to “take” a combined 170 golden eagles in 2021, under a program that holds the companies responsible to offset each eagle lost with at least one eagle death avoided elsewhere.

To document the plight of the birds and efforts to preserve them,Brown and Tobin traveled to remote northern Wyoming where they accompanied scientists who were banding eagles for a long-term population study.

While juggling a visit to a nearby wind farm and an unexpected diversion to Yellowstone National Park for aerial images of flooding that devastated the region this summer,Tobin managed to capture striking images of researchers rappelling down a cliff to take a young eagle from its nest — and a face-to-face confrontation between a GoPro-wearing scientist and the bird. Tobin and Brown both made photos; New York photo editor Patrick Sison put together the gallery accompanying Brown’s engaging and deeply reported text story, as well as an abridged option for customers.

The story played widely on dozens of news sites in the U.S. and beyond,and ran on the front page of The Denver Post. The package also featured prominently on AP News,and the video had some 143,000 views on Twitter alone.

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