Indiana is home to one of the world’s single largest concentrations of wind turbines.
But all of those giant rotors – about 700 standing among the corn and soybeans along I-65 in Benton County – do more than harness energy from the wind.
They also can kill birds.
“During migration, birds are traveling long distances, often at night,” said Brad Bumgardner, president of the Indiana Audubon Society and an interpretive naturalist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
“Birds migrating at night simply don’t see these spinning blades.”
So far, wind farms in Indiana have avoided the extensive bird kills documented in other states, most notably Maryland and California, but Bumgardner and other local naturalists are concerned about the turbines’ continuing development here and the lack of strong regulations to protect birds.
Developers face virtually no federal regulations aimed at preventing bird deaths at wind farms, said Kelly Fuller, wind campaign coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based American Bird Conservancy.
Fuller’s organization had lobbied the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to impose mandatory rules to protect areas near strategic migratory stopping points, but the agency declined the conservancy’s petition in March and instead endorsed a 71-page list of voluntary guidelines, a document the conservancy considers toothless.
“We were rather frustrated,” Fuller said. “At least 175 organizations are on record wanting some kind of mandatory standards to protect wildlife at wind projects, including the Sierra Club, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Birding Association and many local Audubon chapters.”
Naturalists acknowledge that birds face far greater threats than wind farms, such as the neighborhood cat. Still, the federal government does not deny a problem exists.
In 2009, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimated that 440,000 birds per year were killed by U.S. wind turbines, a fraction of the 10 billion to 20 billion birds estimated in the U.S.
But biologists suggest the number of birds killed by turbines will rise as wind energy becomes more prevalent.
Wind farm developers must comply with federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956.
But Fuller fears that wind farms receive special consideration even in regard to those laws.
“There has never been a single prosecution of the wind industry for killing birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” she said, “despite copious documentation of those deaths, such as at Altamont Pass (in California). In contrast, the oil and gas industry has been prosecuted for killing as few as a single bird protected by (the act).”
A wind farm project in North Dakota, she said, is moving through the approval process to receive permission from federal authorities to legally kill, through incidental collisions, two bird species that have been listed under the Endangered Species Act: whooping cranes and piping plovers.
By the most recent measure, in autumn 2010, Indiana ranked 10th in the U.S. in the amount of energy being produced via wind farms.
The wind farm in Benton County, northwest of Lafayette, was among the state’s earliest sites and now boasts one of the world’s largest concentrations of wind turbines. BP, the same company with interests in petroleum and other fuels, operates the wind farm with several partners.
BP is one of the nation’s leading wind farm operators and prepares its own environmental impact analyses before building wind farms, a company spokesman said. The spokesman declined to discuss the subject of bird deaths in further detail, however, saying others have greater expertise on the topic.
The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission oversees wind farms developed in Indiana.
The state has no specific environmental rules governing the state’s wind farms beyond what is required by the federal government, said Danielle McGrath, a commission spokeswoman. The IURC, however, reviews petitions for compliance with other types of state regulations.
“The IURC looks for certain items within a petition that show it is a well-conceived project,” McGrath said, “and an avian risk assessment is a typical item that’s often included.”
McGrath provided a petition recently submitted for plans to build a wind farm in portions of Madison and Tipton counties northeast of Indianapolis. It included such an assessment, with specific references to at-risk species in the area: black and white warbler, black rail and peregrine falcon.
In each case, the petitioner made the case that the project posed minimal risks to those species.
Fuller remains convinced that mandatory federal rules ultimately are needed to protect U.S. wildlife.
“States have a varying patchwork of regulations, covering things like the distances wind turbines have to be set back from houses to whether or not projects have to undergo any environmental review at all,” Fuller said. “Some states such as Minnesota have a fairly rigorous review. Others such as Texas don’t have any.”
Location, wildlife experts say, is everything when it comes to whether wind farms pose major threats to migrating birds. So far, they say, planners have done a good job, whether by design or coincidence, in finding sites for Indiana’s wind farms outside major migratory paths.
“It seems that wind farms placed in open-country cropland with little habitat for migration or breeding are likely the ideal locations for wind farm development,” said Wes Homoya, a Purdue University researcher.
No one disputes that wind farms can prove devastating to birds that unwittingly fly into the spinning blades.
Biologist Michael Retter recalls one spring day in 2006 when, working as a consultant to a wind-energy company, he was walking amid acres of 240-foot-tall posts on which 110-foot-long blades spun in the wind. His job: to look for dead birds.
A movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Looking closer, he realized it was the detached wing of a large raptor, lying on the ground and flopping in the wind.
Then he found the rest of the bird. It was a red-tailed hawk.
“I remember it was sliced into three pieces,” Retter said.
Retter is not permitted to disclose at what specific wind farm he was working that day, he said. Fortunately, he said, such discoveries were rare the year he was charged with checking for carcasses. The hawk was one of just two dead birds he found underneath the giant rotors. The other was an American coot, a species of waterfowl.
Retter said he worked at two biological consulting companies at three different wind farms in Illinois and Indiana over three years and never heard of any study linking Indiana wind farms to extensive bird deaths.
“This wind farm was not in a major migratory route, like a coastline, ridge top or mountain pass,” said Retter, now a West Lafayette-based editor with the American Birding Association. “It’s relatively safe.”
The wind farm in Altamont Pass, Calif., has drawn scrutiny for causing thousands of bird deaths annually, including about 75 of the relatively rare golden eagles each year.
Bumgardner, who currently works at Indiana Dunes State Park, agreed that location can be everything.
“In the larger scheme,” he said, the number of bird deaths “is fairly small compared to the hundreds of millions (caused by) cats, windows and power lines. … The great term here is ‘comparable risk.’ You must put it all in perspective.”
Bumgardner advocates regulating wind farms as other businesses and building projects are regulated.
“In areas of high bird migrations, such as coastal areas (including Lake Michigan),” he said, “we (should) zone them to not allow windmills, say, within 20 miles of the shore. Wind farms already have mapping done that shows where they want farms based on wind speeds observed, distance to transmission lines. … It’s merely a new layer on top of that to help minimize bird deaths while recognizing a clean energy source.”
Birds of prey, such as eagles and hawks, account for about one-third of deaths from wind turbines across the United States, said Don Gorney, a well-known Indianapolis birder and former president of the Amos W. Butler Audubon Society. Warbler species account for another third, he said, and all other species account for smaller proportions of deaths.
Gorney believes wind farms are compatible with bird conservation if sensible guidelines are followed. Homoya, the Purdue researcher, agreed.
“It’s interesting to point out that (one) study found that in terms of gigawatt-hours of electricity produced, there are roughly 13 times more bird deaths associated with fossil fuel energy production than with wind farms.”
Homoya has studied how Benton County wind farms affect the American golden plover’s use of a nearby migratory stopover site.
“Results are pending,” Homoya said, “but anecdotally it appears that effects are minimal.”
The next round of controversy in the development of wind energy, meanwhile, might already be brewing.
Whatever their effects on birds, some biologists say, the giant turbines could pose an even greater threat to another type of creature: bats.
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