Frank Ruiz sees fewer birds at the Salton Sea these days.
As salinity levels climb and kill fish in the giant but receding Coachella Valley lake, there are fewer white pelicans, brown pelicans and cormorants to be found, said Ruiz, the Salton Sea program director for Audubon California.
“We’ve also seen a huge decline in other species like eared grebes,” he said. “We used to see them by the thousands coming over the Salton Sea.”
That’s concerning enough, given that the sea is “one of the major stopovers on the Pacific Flyway,” Ruiz said. Now, he said, migratory birds that crisscross the North American continent along the West Coast face an increasing threat from solar power plants, wind energy farms, power lines, oil refineries and other industrial facilities across Southern California.
Operators of those facilities say they have been working to prevent bird deaths and plan to continue those efforts.
But Audubon California and other environmental groups are alarmed about a recent Trump administration interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which marks its 100th birthday this year. The administration’s interpretation essentially says the act does not bar activities that accidentally kill migratory birds, as long as an activity’s purpose is something other than harming birds, such as generating power.
Saying the interpretation constitutes a sweeping reversal of decades of public policy, environmental groups sued the federal government in May. Earlier this month, California and seven other states also filed a lawsuit over the matter. The states want the interpretation thrown out.
BIRDS AT RISK
Katie Umekubo, a San Francisco attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the policy reversal places millions of migratory birds at risk.
Umekubo said that’s because the administration, in effect, set aside “the federal government’s primary tool to prevent, and seek redress for, the majority of industrial bird slaughters. They’ve also taken away the main incentive for industries to avoid and mitigate impacts to birds before harm occurs – for example, netting waste pits at oil and gas facilities.”
Chad Hanson, an ecologist with the John Muir Project at Big Bear Lake, termed the change a serious threat.
“This is a profound attack on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, one of the most successful conservation acts in U.S. history,” Hanson said.
The historical reading of the act, he said, led to a number of practices that reduce threats, especially during nesting season. Hanson said the message to industry has been clear: “You need to be mindful. You need to take preventative steps to make sure that you are not killing birds and their young.”
Now a different message is being spread, Hanson said, one that suggests it doesn’t matter if birds die.
Hanson said some companies will continue to protect birds.
“But many will not,” he said. “And that’s the concern.”
However, several industry officials said they don’t plan to change anything.
Mike Speerschneider, senior director of permitting policy and environmental affairs for the Washington-based American Wind Energy Association, said wind farm operators worked with federal officials in 2012 to develop practices that reduce the threat to birds, and those are still being followed today.
“Is that going to change? I don’t see that it would,” he said. “There is no indication that anybody would stop doing that or do it to a lesser extent, due to this administration’s interpretation of the MBTA.”
One of the things wind farms do, he said, is turn lights off around turbines during peak migration to avoid attracting birds.
David Knox, a spokesman for NRG Energy in Houston, which operates the massive Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System south of the California-Nevada state line, said his company also will continue to monitor and minimize bird deaths.
The sparkling Ivanpah plant that lights 140,000 homes, not to mention the desert along I-15, came online in late 2013. Soon after, concerns were raised that it posed a threat. Hundreds of thousands of mirrors focus solar energy on three giant, 460-foot towers, and insects and birds are drawn by the towers’ intense white glow. The super-heated zone around the towers can reach 800 degrees.
Scientists have described it as a “mega trap.” Birds’ feathers burn when they fly through the scorching air.
As California continues to ramp up its reliance on clean energy – Gov. Jerry Brown just signed a law mandating 100 percent green power by 2045 – solar power plants are likely to become more prominent. But that doesn’t mean the industry will drop its guard, a trade association said.
“Our companies remain committed to developing solar projects in a responsible way,” Katherine Gensler, acting vice president of federal affairs for the Washington-based Solar Energy Industries Association, said in an email.
DOING THE RIGHT THING
Oil companies are committed, too, a trade group says.
“We don’t need to be regulated to do the right thing,” said Kevin Slagle, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association in Sacramento. “Regardless of legal challenges or policy changes, our industry will continue to operate with the highest possible standards for environmental and wildlife protections.”
When it comes to sheer numbers, household cats pose the biggest single threat to birds in the United States, killing an estimated 1.8 billion annually, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Collisions also account for many deaths. An estimated 676 million birds die each year flying into windows, 214 million die in collisions with vehicles, 32 million die slamming into power lines and 6.6 million die flying into communication towers.
Meanwhile, an estimated 72 million birds are poisoned, 6.2 million are electrocuted, 750,000 die in oil pits and 328,000 are killed by wind turbines, the wildlife service says.
Data on solar-caused deaths is spotty. But some plants file annual reports with the California Energy Commission. The latest reports estimate that 2,003 birds died at Ivanpah in San Bernardino County between Dec. 16, 2016 and Dec. 15, 2017, and that 1,507 died at the Genesis Solar Energy Project near Blythe in Riverside County between March 1, 2015 and Feb. 28, 2016.
Operators of wind and solar plants characterize their impacts as low when compared to other causes of death. Environmentalists counter that the threat should not be measured by numbers only.
Mike Lynes, public policy director for Audubon California, said that while the No. 1 killer may be backyard-hunting cats, they attack mostly small birds such as sparrows.
“They don’t kill golden eagles and red-tailed hawks,” Lynes said, saying that many industrial activities do.
Yet, Peter Sharpe, wildlife biologist with the Institute for Wildlife Studies, seemed less concerned about the impact of the law’s interpretation on bald eagles in the region. He said they tend to stay close to water and not to venture near desert wind farms and solar plants.
Once critically endangered, Sharpe said bald eagles are rebounding across Southern California. He said 20 nesting pairs bred on the Channel Islands this year, for example.
“And there are more showing up on the mainland,” in places like Big Bear Lake, Lake Hemet and Anaheim Hills, he said.
Even so, said Sandy Steers, executive director of Friends of Big Bear Valley and operator of an online camera that tracks the progress of hatching chicks, the policy change is disturbing. It could mean federal regulators will give facilities a pass when their activities harm migratory birds, including bald eagles, she said.
“That’s how the bald eagle got in trouble before with DDT,” Steers said.
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