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Feathers flying over Maine Audubon wind and wildlife report

It’s about as far afield from California as you can be and still be in the continental United States, but this is an interesting development in the “green on green” division that’s characterized renewable energy and wildlife issues: The Maine chapter of the National Audubon Society is being accused of softening a report on wind energy after taking donations from energy interests.

A group called Friends of Maine’s Mountains (FMM) is urging Maine Audubon to retract a report on wind power and wildlife that FMM calls “one-sided” and clearly in favor of wind developers.

The group also wants Maine Audubon to disclose whether significant funding from wind and energy interests had any effect on the report’s findings. Maine Audubon lists the renewable energy developer First Wind among its top donors for 2013, in a tier on its “Corporate Partners” page that indicates the wind company has donated at least $10,000.

Other major wind industry donors acknowledged by Maine Audubon are the construction company Reed & Reed, Central Maine Power, Emera Energy, and Patriot Renewables.

Maine Audubon’s report suggests that the state has enough wind resource development area with low wildlife use to meet the state’s goal of installing 3,000 megawatts of generating capacity without unduly harming wildlife. The report says that 1.1 million acres in the state have enough wind to make power generation feasible, and that 84 percent of that area can be developed without significant risk to wildlife.

To Maine Audubon’s credit, the report acknowledges that it’s based on insufficient information about wildlife land use in Maine, and points out that the report isn’t intended to replace site-specific evaluation of individual proposals’ likely wildlife impacts. In particular, the routes of migratory birds through much of Maine are essentially unknown.

But that disclaimer isn’t swaying FMM.

“Although the report is replete with disclaimers and acknowledged weakness by the authors themselves regarding the types of information that went into the work and the limitations of any conclusions stemming from it, it has been confidently presented to the public as a tool that would reliably serve as guidelines for siting land-based wind energy development.” said Rebecca Holberton, a biologist with the University of Maine – Orono who’s studied bird migration for 25 years. “I’m not aware that during any stage of the project’s development that any effort was made by MAS to bring in biologists from academia, as well as state and federal wildlife agencies for input.”

“We knew this was going to happen,” the report’s author, wildlife biologist Susan Gallo told the Kennebec Journal. “This report wasn’t a comprehensive analysis of risks to wildlife. We didn’t address whether turbines are good or bad. We support wind in concept but not every wind development. And because of that, we often get attacked from both pro-wind and anti-wind.”

It’s awkward timing for Maine Audubon, with the criticism from FMM coming less than a week after the National Audubon Society’s CEO David Yarnold slammed the wind industry and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in no uncertain terms over USFWS’ proposed 30-year take permits for eagles killed by wind turbines.

Audubon isn’t a top-down organization: each of its chapters is an independent non-profit that is voluntarily affiliated with the national organization. It’s not unheard of for chapters to go toe-to-toe with the national organization over policy matters, as California’s Golden Gate Audubon Society did when the national organization backed the beginnings of the condor captive breeding program in the mid-1980s.

More locally, Audubon California worked in cooperation with wind industry firms and agencies to craft guidelines for siting wind developments to avoid the worst damage to wildlife. The ultimate result of that work was a set of voluntary guidelines adopted by the California Energy Commission in 2007. Though the most recent Annual Report available online for Audubon California seems to omit information on donors, the group’s donors between July 2011 and October 2012 included the Sempra Energy Foundation – the philanthropic arm of the diversified energy company – as well as Pacific Gas & Electric, and Bechtel, builder of large renewable energy facilities among other things.