HURON COUNTY – Land area within three miles of the Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay shorelines deserves to be protected from wind energy development, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a letter addressed to county commissioners.
The federal conservancy agency has submitted data for nocturnal migration of birds and bats in Huron County, which it says may be of value as officials revise the county’s wind energy ordinance.
County planners say it’s the first time in eight years they’ve received anything formally in writing from the agency.
In the Oct. 20 letter, the Service says it has been studying nocturnal migration of birds and bats along the Great Lakes shoreline for the past four years. Findings show “heavy concentrations of nocturnal migrants” – songbirds and bats – “utilizing the first three miles of shoreline along both Lake Huron and the Saginaw Bay.”
“We believe that the land portion of this area is particularly important to migrating birds and bats and deserves to be protected from wind development,” writes Jeffrey C. Gosse, regional energy coordinator for the Service.
In the study, avian radar and acoustic monitors were stationed at two sites in Huron County – one northeast of Sebewaing, the other near Port Hope. Measurements were taken between three miles inland of the shore to about one mile offshore, and more than 100 nights of data were collected.
“(We) have learned a great deal about nocturnal migration in your county,” Gosse writes.
Avian radar units collected data 24 hours a day, tracking birds and bats as they passed through the airspace, according to the study. Results also show “many targets (birds and bats) are flying well within the swept zone of a turbine through the sample period, with heaviest activity during the night hours.”
“Passerines (songbirds) and bats need to land as dawn approaches or as they become tired,” the letter states.
Researchers say they tracked migrations of as many as 3,000 birds and bats per day at the testing site near Port Hope.
The letter concludes with the Service recommending that Huron County “include in its ordinance a three-mile buffer inland from the shoreline that precludes development of wind power projects.” Pending further evaluation, early results indicate that the protected area should possibly be larger, according to the letter.
“We are confident in the need to protect the first three miles from shore,” Gosse writes.
Planning Commission Chair Clark Brock said he has briefly looked at the 14-page report, replete with charts, graphs, methodology and explanation of findings. Brock said he doesn’t necessarily think the information in the letter is new, though it is the first time the Service sent correspondence directly to the planning commission.
“We take official documents from government entities always into consideration when looking at that,” Brock said. “We’re not in a position of saying yes or no to any of their direction. When you look at the miles of shoreline we have, they’re not all the same, in terms of environment (and) human population.”
Brock said he doesn’t know how much the recommendations will factor into revision of the county’s wind energy ordinance. As far as including the recommended three-mile buffer zone in the ordinance, “some situations may call for it and others may not,” he said.
Although the Service advocates for the shoreline setbacks, a provision in the letter states “absolute prohibition” of wind development in the three-mile buffer “may not be necessary.”
“We would suggest the ordinance also state that development could occur if developers had concurrence from the Service that based upon pre-construction studies, siting, operational measures, and post-construction studies, the development would not pose an undue risk to wildlife.”
Such may be the case for Geronimo Energy, which plans to build its 50-turbine Apple Blossom Wind Farm in Winsor and McKinley townships, on the western edge of the county.
Geronimo officials say at least 20 of the 50 turbines are planned for within two to three miles of the shoreline. Eleven alternate locations are set “in the event we run into environmental issues,” Project Manager David Shiflett said.
To avoid disturbing migrations, Geronimo says it has worked with the Service to decide that the best approach is installing a box radar unit near turbines that looks into the sky to detect migrations and shuts down automatically if something is detected.
“I would certainly like to see a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in terms of their mitigation plan,” Brock said.
Planners are scheduled to further review Geronimo’s site plan at 7 p.m. Dec. 3, at the Huron County Building.
While most wind parks in Huron County do not approach shorelines, a couple turbines are installed and operating at just under three miles from the shoreline, according to Jeff Smith, the county’s director of building and zoning.
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