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Bird conservation group wants tighter controls on wind industry

A national bird protection group is calling on the federal government to require wind energy operators to get permits to kill birds that are protected under one of the nation’s oldest environmental laws.

The Washington, D.C.-based American Bird Conservancy, which projects more than 1.4 million annual bird deaths in coming years from wind turbines and their associated transmission lines, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this month to require owners of wind power facilities to apply for permits under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 before being allowed to build their projects.

USFWS has been asking wind companies to follow voluntary bird-protection guidelines when siting and designing their projects, but American Bird Conservancy claims in its petition that the voluntary approach has been roundly ineffective at protecting birds from wind turbines.

he petition, filed earlier this month with the U.S. Department of the Interior, is actually a follow-up to an earlier attempt by the group to compel USFWS to crack down on wind industry violations of the law. This month’s petition was sent to provide new information on the scope of the threat wind turbines pose to birds.

As part of that update, the group summarized a December 2014 study, commissioned by the group and conducted by researchers at Mississippi State University, that indicates USFWS’ voluntary compliance policy has failed to prevent wind turbines from being built in extremely sensitive bird areas:

Nearly 30,000 wind turbines have already been installed within areas identified as being of high importance to federally-protected birds in the United States, with more than 50,000 additional turbines planned for construction in similar areas. These include more than 18,000 in the migration corridor of the whooping crane – one of the nation’s rarest and most spectacular birds, 1,800 in greater sage-grouse breeding strongholds, and nearly 1,400 in locations deemed to be of the most critical importance to conserving the nation’s birdlife. This clearly indicates that the voluntary guidelines are not working to protect our public trust resources, especially since proper siting is probably the best and most effective form of mitigation.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to kill or harm any of the 800-odd species of bird specifically listed under the law without a permit. Penalties for a single offense – injury to a single bird – range up to $200,000 in fines and a year’s imprisonment.

As Rewire reported two years ago, USFWS has been highly reluctant to enforce the law against operators of wind turbines.

“In effect, the MBTA is not being enforced, except perhaps under very special circumstances,” said Michael Hutchins of the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign. “This reality is particularly significant for the wind industry because wind energy projects will inevitably take birds protected under the MBTA. In fact, because it is virtually impossible to operate a wind energy facility without killing or injuring at least some migratory birds, most operational wind energy projects are in ongoing violation of the MBTA, and are effectively breaking the law with impunity.”