HURON COUNTY – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it is confident that land area within three miles of the Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay shorelines needs to be protected from wind energy development.
So confident, in fact, that the federal conservancy agency recommends Huron County include in its wind energy ordinance a “three-mile buffer inland from the shoreline that precludes development of wind power projects,” according to an Oct. 20 letter sent to the county.
But the “wishy-washy” stance has blurred the lines for county commissioners.
“It’s frustrating that the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) can’t make a solid decision,” Board Chair Clark Elftman said Wednesday, when commissioners discussed the letter at a committee meeting of the whole.
The Service’s recommendation is neither a requirement nor a federal law – creating a gray area, especially as developers eye the shoreline as a spot to erect turbines.
Complicating the matter even more is a statement made by the Service that “absolute prohibition” of wind development within three miles of the shoreline “may not be necessary,” and that development could occur if it would not pose an undue risk to wildlife.
“It’s the federal government versus the federal government; you have one branch of the federal government that’s promoting these wind turbines and paying them millions upon billions of dollars to put them up, and then you have another branch which isn’t quite as strong, that covers U.S. Fish and Wildlife,” Commissioner John Nugent said. “You have the feds versus the feds.”
However, Nugent said, serious attention should be given to the Service’s notion – “not just for aesthetic reasons but for animal protection.”
Commissioner Steve Vaughan said swans avoid wind turbines at DTE Energy’s Echo Wind Park.
“This whole Echo Wind Park is full of whistling (tundra) swans, right now,” Vaughan said. “They fly to the wind park, lower themselves and go back up. If you go farther west, where they want this open area for these swans, there aren’t any. They’re all flying right through the Echo Wind Park.”
“These things are fairly well-documented, that these flight paths are along that shoreline – there’s no escaping it,” he said.
To clear up some of the confusion, Elftman presented a simpler idea.
“If you want to monitor, I have a dog that is very good at finding things,” Elftman said. “We have found nothing other than two dead bats in my driveway, and I live within the two- to three-mile area.”
Others have taken a more technical approach.
After four years of study in Huron County, the Service says it has tracked migrations of as many as 3,000 birds and bats per day at a testing site near Port Hope. An area northeast of Sebewaing also was monitored in the study.
Port Crescent Hawk Watch also monitors migration in Huron County. Monica Essenmacher, head of the local nonprofit, said she has been collecting migration and breeding data on hawks for more than 30 years.
Essenmacher said volunteers go out “when there’s a chance there will be a flight,” and have found “a lot of hawks that are going through” the Hume Township area and other locations in the Thumb.
Developers also are required to keep an eye on the sky.
In August, DTE Energy presented results from a wildlife study conducted by a Wyoming-based environmental and statistical consulting firm, commissioned by DTE for its wind parks in the Thumb. At the study’s midpoint, results show 35 bird and eight bat carcasses have been picked up since winter – all fatalities assumed to be wind-energy related.
However, the firm said findings are within expected ranges, and that “no threatened or endangered species or any species of concern have been found so far.”
In Huron County, a couple turbines are sited and operating within three miles of the shoreline, according to Jeff Smith, the county’s building and zoning director. Smith said there have not been any fatalities of protected species caused by wind turbines in Huron County that his office is aware of.
The federal agency’s Oct. 20 letter – which planners say marks the first time in eight years they’ve received anything formally in writing directly from the Service – is perhaps a bit untimely, in that planners are currently reviewing Geronimo Energy’s blueprint for its Apple Blossom Wind Farm 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.
“It has presented challenges because of the fact that (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife) will not give approvals of these projects in writing,” Smith said. “Apple Blossom will be the most difficult for review in that regard.”
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