Wind turbines deadly for eagles, pheasants; Protected birds die without prosecution of energy companies
CONVERSE COUNTY, WYO. – Every year 573,000 birds are killed by wind turbines, according to an estimate published in March in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin.
In the Converse County, Wyo., area, more than four dozen golden eagles have been killed by the turbines since 2009, one of the deadliest places in the country of its kind. In neighboring South Dakota, there are no known reports of eagle deaths but other birds, including pheasants, mallards and smaller species have been killed.
Yet so far, the companies operating industrial-sized turbines here and elsewhere that are killing eagles and other protected birds have yet to be fined or prosecuted – even though every death is a criminal violation.
The Obama administration has charged oil companies for drowning birds in their waste pits, and power companies for electrocuting birds on power lines.
But the administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind-energy company, even those that flout the law repeatedly.
“What it boils down to is this: If you electrocute an eagle, that is bad, but if you chop it to pieces, that is OK,” said Tim Eicher, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement agent based in Cody.
It’s a double standard that some Republicans in Congress said Tuesday they would examine after an Associated Press investigation revealed that the Obama administration has shielded the wind power industry from liability and helped keep the scope of the deaths secret.
“We obviously don’t want to see indiscriminate killing of birds from any sort of energy production, yet the administration’s ridiculous inconsistencies begs questioning and clarity – clarity on why wind energy producers are let off the hook,” Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said.
The House Natural Resources Committee, which was at the beginning stages of an investigation, vowed to dig deeper earlier this week.
“There are serious concerns that the Obama administration is not implementing this law fairly and equally,” said Jill Strait, a spokeswoman for the committee’s chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
Pheasants, mallards killed in S. Dakota
There is little data available of just how many birds collide with wind turbines every year in South Dakota, but local experts say there have been reports of several species, including pheasants and mallards.
Natalie Gates, a fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said there have been reports of a wide range of species colliding with wind turbines in the state, including American white Pelicans and pheasants, but no reports of eagles collisions to her knowledge.
However, there isn’t an overall tally available on how widespread the issue is, she said. Companies often do post-construction wildlife surveys of bird deaths in the years after a wind farm opens, but the reports from those surveys often aren’t readily available, said Silka Kempema, a wildlife biologist with South Dakota Game Fish and Parks.
Gates receives some reports from companies that report data, but she said the list is not complete. She also declined to provide the data without a Freedom of Information Act request because of confidentiality issues.
But Gates did say avian collisions are an issue with wind turbines.
“I think it’s an issue wherever you have wind turbines,” she said. “They’re going to kill birds. It’s pretty much a given.”
Basin Electric Power Cooperative owns and operates 100 wind towers north of White Lake through the PrairieWinds SD 1 subsidiary. The wind farm has an additional eight towers, seven owned by South Dakota Wind Partners and another by Mitchell Technical Institute. The Crow Lake Wind project was completed in 2011 and since then the company has been doing post-construction monitoring for the site. The company also has a wind farm in North Dakota.
Kevin Solie, senior water quality/waste management coordinator for Basin Electric, said their studies show two collisions per tower every year on average. By far the most common collisions come from pheasants but also from smaller species. They have not seen any collisions with hawks, raptors, owls or eagles.
Wind turbines can be as tall as 30 stories high and the spinning rotors can reach speeds up to 150 mph.
“A lot of times, the birds, if they’re going to move through, they’re not moving through fast enough.” Gates said.
But hunting birds such as eagles or hawks also tend to be looking at the ground and might not necessarily see the wind turbines up ahead, Gates said. If wind farms are near prairie dog towns, for instance, that can cause more collisions for species such as raptors.
A number of organizations are looking into the issue. The American Wind Wildlife Institute is working to create a repository to collect and analyze unpublished data that often is considered confidential.
The Western Area Power Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are seeking comment on a draft of the Upper Great Plains Wind Energy Programmatic Environmental Impact Study, which looks at the effects of wind energy on grassland and wetland easements in the region.
Gates said research has found that bat collisions can be decreased simply by powering the turbines up at higher wind levels, when fewer bats are flying. Some states have used radar equipment to determine when mass bird migrations are in the area to power down turbines, though she doesn’t think that technology has been used in South Dakota.
Solie said the average number of collisions on the Crow Lake wind farm is less than other projects in the area that have released data to the public. That’s in part because more recent wind farms have taken more care to site towers away from wetlands and other habitats.
“I think there is some trying to avoid where the birds are going to be,” he said.
The Crow Creek project spans 30,000 acres and wind towers are placed based on a computer model that determines the best place to get the most wind resources along while also avoiding necessary areas, said Daryl Hill, spokesman for Basin Electric. That project is on cropland and pastureland.
Other tweaks have been made as well, Hill and Solie said. Tower blades now spin slower, whereas in the early years they moved fast enough that they would become invisible. They also don’t have a lattice structure at the top anymore and are solid columns.
“There is no place for the birds to nest or land on our structures,” Solie said.
Further, during whooping crane migratory season the company must hire biologists to look out for the birds. Once one is spotted the turbines are shut off within a two miles radius.
But both Gates and Kempema said there is little that can be done, overall.
Kempema said post-construction studies should continue and that energy companies must continue to work with conservation groups and federal and state agencies. They both also said the best recommendation is for companies to focus on wind farms already in disturbed areas such as cropland rather than grass or wetlands.
“More times than not, South Dakota is a pretty good state for wildlife, and we have a lot of habitat,” said Kempema, adding it can be hard to find a place where no habits will be disturbed.
U.S. energy policy
Wind power, a pollution-free energy intended to ease global warming, is a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s energy plan. His administration has championed a $1 billion-a-year tax break to the industry that has nearly doubled the amount of wind power in his first term.
“Climate change is really greatest threat that we see to species conservation in long run,” said Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe in an interview with the AP on Monday. “We have an obligation to support well-designed renewable energy.”
But like the oil industry under President George W. Bush, lobbyists and executives have used their favored status to help steer U.S. energy policy.
The result is a green industry that’s allowed to do not-so-green things.
Getting precise figures is impossible because many companies aren’t required to disclose how many birds they kill. And when they do, experts say, the data can be unreliable.
When companies voluntarily report deaths, the Obama administration in many cases refuses to make the information public, saying it belongs to the energy companies or that revealing it would expose trade secrets or implicate ongoing enforcement investigations.
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