The Nebraska Legislature gave the green light last year to projects that export wind energy from a state of prominent and largely unharnessed wind potential.
It remains to be seen to what extent Nebraska’s equally prominent place in the Midwest’s migratory flyway for whooping cranes and other bird species will become a red light.
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Grand Island and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission say they have a strategy in place that will allow wind farms to go forward in much of the state.
The American Bird Conservancy, meanwhile, points to problems with golden eagles in California and “thousands of raptors” being killed there as a caution sign for what’s ahead.
Mike Parr of the conservancy group said wind development in Nebraska was do-able, “but it needs to be done with care and not with the head-long rush to get grants and tax breaks.”
Among his concerns in the central flyway area are transmission lines that will have to be built to carry energy from wind turbines to marketplace.
“The transmission build-out that’s planned looks like it will criss-cross the whooping crane migration corridor very significantly,” Parr said Monday.
Bob Harms, a biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and Michelle Koch, an environmental analyst with Game and Parks, say there were many places wind farms could be built but some places they should not be.
“We think there’s room for wind development in the state,” Harms said. “The key is smart wind development.”
Koch sees progress with wind farms as “a matter of developers coming to us and talking to us about their projects.”
“And I think we can build in measures into projects to make sure they minimize the effects on migratory birds. But certainly, I think, they can co-exist.”
Harms said he and other experts weren’t suggesting wind farms be kept out of birds’ flight path altogether.
“It’s those places where they’re landing, taking off, and maybe spending a few weeks – like the Sandhills cranes do here – that are really the big deal.”
In anticipation of what Harms described as quite a bit of wind development, a wind and wildlife working group has developed a color-coded map that prioritizes its concerns.
Koch said the bright red coding along the Platte River in the Grand Island-Kearney area, for example, was meant to steer developers from those areas.
Whooping cranes aren’t the only focus. Eagles, piping plovers, interior least terns, swans, grouse and prairie chickens are also in the spotlight.
Too often, Parr said, construction of major dams on American rivers provided an example of what not to do. Not until some of those dams were built was there attention to environmental and wildlife damage they would cause.
“We support the wind industry and we want to see wind happen,” he said.
But the dam disconnect needs to be taken into account, Parr said, “so we can avoid the same problem with wind impact on birds – if we just take stock and act in a more carefully thought-out manner.”
Parr said using the right kinds of lights on turbines and colored balls on transmission lines could help warn birds about what’s in front of them. Minimizing the footprint of wind farms with such add-ons as roads and weather stations is another important consideration.
Rich Lombardi, a Lincoln-based lobbyist for the American Wind Association, thinks things will work out.
“I think what’s unique about the wind industry,” he said, “is that they’re extremely cognizant of the wildlife challenges and the environmental challenges – because their utilization is based on a renewable energy resource that does far less damage to the environment than all the fossil fuels that are out there.”
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