September 5, 2012
Opinions, Texas

Wind power takes precedence over protecting endangered cranes

By Brian Seasholes | Houston Chronicle | 4 September 2012

Why is the U.S. government funding and promoting a plan to allow one of North America’s rarest birds to be killed by wind turbines? While many environmentalists tout wind power as a source of green energy, the fact that wind turbines pose a threat to birds, including the highly endangered whooping crane, has received little notice.

Every year, wind turbines in the U.S. kill at least 500,000 birds, but the total is rising as the number of wind turbines skyrockets. One wind farms hot spot, a 200-mile swath of the Great Plains that stretches from Texas to North Dakota, also happens to be the migratory path for the 278 whooping cranes that constitute the species’ largest and most viable population.

Wind farm owners worry about prosecution under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) if a whooping crane is killed by one of their turbines. So the industry is seeking an exemption under the ESA, known as a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), if a crane is accidentally killed.

The exemption is part of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s “Smart from the Start” initiative to “accelerate the responsible development of wind energy projects across the nation.” Why Salazar, who is required under the ESA to protect species, is enthusiastically leading the charge to kill whooping cranes is hard to explain.

The majestic whooping crane holds a special place in the hearts of many Americans. It is the tallest bird in the U.S., at nearly five feet, and one of the icons of wildlife conservation worldwide. Federal conservation efforts for the crane date to the 1930s, and over the ensuing decades the government spent millions of dollars to protect the crane.

In the 1940s, the National Audubon Society partnered with the federal government to create the Cooperative Whooping Crane Project, which engaged in groundbreaking research and conservation efforts crucial to the crane’s conservation. The government continues to be heavily involved in whooping crane conservation, with the latest federal recovery plan estimating that from 2006 to 2035, it will cost $126 million to protect the crane.

All these efforts have paid off, with the whooping crane population increasing from a low of 23 birds in the mid-1940s to 600 cranes today (about 160 of which are in captive breeding programs). Sadly, much of this progress is threatened by wind farms.

The federal government aggressively prosecutes politically incorrect forms of carbon-based energy – oil drilling and coal-fired power plants – for accidentally killing common species of birds. Yet wind power producers have never faced similar prosecution, even for killing endangered species of bats and bird species that are uncommon and declining.

Moreover, the government continues to hammer small landowners whose property happens to hold species the federal government deems endangered species – or even just suitable habitat for the species, without the species even being present.

Take the case of landowners in Bastrop County, Texas, who reside within the 124,000 acres covered by a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for the Houston toad. Landowners who want to build on a half acre or less must pay a $1,500 mitigation fee; those who want to build on one-half to one acre must pay $3,000 – regardless of whether their land actually contains toads, which it likely does not, since toads only occupy a portion of the HCP’s 124,000 acres.

Individual landowners who want to develop more than an acre must go through the arduous, expensive and time consuming process of negotiating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the right to use their land. Traditionally, zoning is the purview of municipalities. But under the ESA, the federal government has become heavily involved in zoning in places such as Bastrop County, which raises a host of troubling legal and political issues.

The Obama administration talks a mean game of standing up for the little guy and taking on special interests, but when it comes to wildlife conservation, it appears to be only talk. The last thing the whooping crane needs is more threats to its precarious existence, especially from the very government that is supposed to protect it.

Seasholes is an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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