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Wind power could put birds at risk

One of the nation’s largest bird conservation groups says rapid construction of wind energy projects will endanger several avian species.

That includes the whooping crane, a famous migratory bird and annual visitor to central Nebraska.

Officials with American Bird Conservancy on Wednesday cited data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that estimates 400,000 birds of various species are killed by turbine blades annually.

The conservation group’s concerns come as state and national officials push to expand wind energy development in the coming years.

“Golden eagles, whooping cranes and greater sage-grouse are likely to be among the birds most affected by poorly planned and sited wind projects,” said Kelly Fuller, a spokeswoman for the conservancy.

“Unless the government acts now to require that the wind industry respect basic wildlife safeguards, these three species will be at ever greater risk.”

Officials with Nebraska Public Power District and MidAmerican Energy Co. said potential wind farm developments are carefully examined by experts and conservationists to determine their ecological impact.

“We monitor for bird kills but haven’t seen anything of significance,” said Mark Becker, an NPPD spokesman. “But we have not heard of any endangered species or any endangered birds being killed in Nebraska.”

Ann Thelen, a MidAmerican spokeswoman, said her company builds wind farms in areas that pose fewer risks to the avian population.

“Our projects are primarily installed in crop areas where there is annual tilling, planting and harvesting activities and as such, these areas don’t support large migrations of birds or nesting,” she said.

An estimated 400 whooping cranes remain in the wild. They are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Crane migration patterns come to a dangerous crossroads in Great Plains states, conservationists say, where the birds can encounter turbines or high-powered transmission lines that could kill them.

Meanwhile, more wind farms are likely to spring up in Nebraska after the Legislature passed a law to encourage larger, privately owned farms that will export power to less windy states.

Gov. Dave Heineman has said he wants Nebraska to climb into the top 10 nationally for wind power generation within 10 years. That would require almost a 10-fold increase in generation.

Thus, more wires and more turbines.

“Without strong standards designed to protect birds through smart siting, technology and mitigation programs, wind power will soon affect millions of birds,” Fuller said.

“Given the subsidies paid to the wind industry by the government, many of the negative impacts to birds will be unwittingly funded by the American taxpayer.”