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A planned wind turbine testing facility to be built around 20 miles from the winter home of the endangered Whooping Cranes isn’t likely to dramatically impact their population, though a few could be killed by the whirling blades.
So says Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an expert on North America’s tallest bird, which has rebounded from near-extinction in the 1940s.
The U.S. Department of Energy announced recently that two facilities, one in Ingleside and the other in Massachusetts, would receive up to $2 million each in federal funds to test the new, larger turbines, which have blades up to 330 feet long.
It’s being billed as clean energy technology said Stehn, whose agency initially endorsed wind farms as an alternative to fossil fuels but is “starting to think more and learn more about the potential impact” to migrating species.
In fact, the Ingleside location is smack-dab in the middle of the Central Flyway, a main migration path for hundreds of species of birds as well as bats.
For the most part, Stehn said, the 236 whoopers who spend each winter at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge just up the coast from Ingleside will confine themselves to that area though some chicks and even adult cranes initially overfly the refuge to points farther south.
“A few birds might encounter a turbine when that happens,” he said; citing reports of the whoopers being seen near Flower Bluff, which is closer to Corpus Christi.
Stehn, who monitors the cranes at Aransas and also at their summer breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, says he’s less concerned about the Ingleside facility than other wind farms built or planned along the birds’ 2,500-mile migration corridor and the lack of communications between the facilities’ owners and operators and officials charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“We’re concerned. These turbine companies need to comply with the Endangered Species Act,” he said, but “apparently they don’t need a federal permit to build wind turbines in many situations so they don’t even have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service.” The ESA “says you will not take a whooping crane, you will not kill a whooping crane, so they have to figure out how to comply with that.”
For instance, he said while cranes are known to fly into power lines and be killed, they see and avoid lines marked with the big balls common near approaches to airports. If the Lone Star Wind Alliance, which is to build and operate the Ingleside testing facility, would invest in marking power lines in the vicinity it might “mitigate any problems caused by turbines.”
The facility, set to open in October 2009, has been endorsed in glowing terms by both Texas senators as a green solution to the growing energy crush.
Stehn said while the USFW initially endorsed wind farms, “the mood now is to proceed a bit more cautiously, to kind of think about where we’re going to put the turbines because some locations will not work.”
In 1941, only 15 Whooping Cranes were known to exist. The stately birds assumed the role of poster child for the ESA throughout South Texas. They can live to the age of 25 in the wild and have been known to survive from 35 to 40 years in captivity.
In addition to the wild flock that migrants each year from the Aransas refuge to Canada, a flock of 55 migrates from Florida to Wisconsin. Some 41 non-migratory whoopers live in Florida. An additional 131 exist in captivity in various zoos, including eight adults at the San Antonio Zoo.
– This report includes information from the Associated Press.
By Anita Miller
11 August 2007
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