A recently released endangered peregrine falcon found just a few miles from the recently powered Arkwright Summit Wind Park has raised some eyebrows. Was the injured falcon’s location near the wind park a coincidence? Perhaps, though it is impossible to say with absolute certainty, as no one witnessed the incident that caused the broken shoulder. According to founder and director of Campbell Environmental Center Tim O’Day, who oversaw the falcon’s rehabilitation, “That’s a really unusual injury.”
“Not normal,” O’Day went on. “He got hit from the back, and that’s why we suspect utilities like a tower or overhead lines.”
O’Day noted a correlation between increased human activity (cell phone towers, power lines, power towers and wind turbines) and an increasing number of calls regarding injured birds in the Dunkirk area. “I would maybe get a call or two a year for the Dunkirk area,” said O’Day, who hails from Boston, New York and has run the center for over 40 years. “But I’ve gotten more calls than that in just the past month.” Recently O’Day has also received calls for an injured great horned owl and multiple red-tailed hawks in the Dunkirk area.
Certainly, the possibility of declining rare and endangered species in the county is reason enough for concern. In fact, bird migration patterns along the Lake Erie shoreline was one reason why the proposed Ripley-Westfield wind facility was shot down some 10 years ago. At a July 29, 2008 public scope meeting regarding the 83 wind turbines proposed for the two towns, Len DeFrancisco cited a 2003 study that showed the project area has one of the highest spring nocturnal bird migration rates anywhere in North America.
While the fate of endangered birds may not concern all Chautauqua County residents, if the recent election has proven one thing, it is that county residents are consistently concerned with local impacts to their finances. Agriculture, the county’s number one industry, may be more affected by wind turbine activity than was previously thought. If birds and perhaps, more importantly, bats are failing to negotiate the 36 400-feet tall additions to their environment in Arkwright, will they adjust to Villenova’s planned 23 turbines (up to 599 feet high), Hanover’s planned six turbines (up to 495 feet high) and the 41 proposed turbines for the Cassadaga wind project (up to 499 feet high) in the towns of Arkwright, Charlotte, Cherry Creek and Stockton? If they can’t, what could it mean for Chautauqua County residents?
According to one study, an annual agricultural loss valued at over $18 million is possible.
Projected loss for Chautauqua County
The study “Economic Importance of Bats in Agriculture,” published in 2011 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reported the estimated value of bats assuming low, standard and high crop pest survival rates for every county in every state in the country. The study looked at risks to the bat population, the foremost pest-controllers, including wind turbine effects and the widespread White Nose Syndrome, which has killed more than 6 million bats since its discovery in 2006. The study predicted a low survival rate loss of $1.3 million, a standard loss of $7.9 million and a high loss of $18.4 million, annually, for Chautauqua County.
Chautauqua County has more at stake than any other county in western New York and, arguably, the entire state. According to data from the 2007 Census of Agriculture cited by Cornell University Cooperative Extension, Chautauqua County has 235,858 acres of farmland, which comprise 35 percent of the county’s total acreage. Chautauqua County ranks number one in New York State for number of farms, number six for number of dairy farms and number 10 in the state for market value of agricultural products sold. Indeed, Cornell reports that for every dollar of income created by the agricultural industry, $2.29 is generated in the community. The total of this is $317,436,620.
By this measure, bats are an integral part of the county’s agriculture and economy. Making up one fifth of the world’s mammal population, bats typically consume their entire body weight of insects every day. The nocturnal predators feast on adult moths and other insects, which prevents them from laying eggs that will hatch into crop-decimating larvae. They are also important pollinators and seed distributors.
The recent discovery of the spotted lanternfly in two different New York counties this summer makes bats even more important. According to the state DEC, SLF is a destructive pest that feeds on more than 70 plant species including maples, apple trees, grapevine and hops. Up to 300 adult SLF can feed on a single grape vine before weakening and eventually killing it.
Bat loss: a national concern
If bats, the unsung heroes of the agricultural industry, have seemed like an afterthought, it is because, historically, they are. From Bram Stoker to Bela Lugosi, pop culture has never been kind to the villainized mammals, and even Scientific American, in a 2016 article about bats and wind turbines, admits that generally, bats “do not get much attention.” The article goes on to say that no one was even looking for bats under turbines until 2003, but on a routine check for dead hawks and eagles under West Virginia turbines that summer, surveyors found approximately 2,000 dead bats in a single search.
Concern for bat populations is not attributed only to the “tree-hugging” few. The U.S. Geological Survey under the U.S. Department of the Interior states, “North American bats face unprecedented threats including habitat loss and fragmentation, white-nose syndrome, wind energy development and climate change.” According to the U.S. Geological Survey, it is estimated that tens to hundreds of thousands of bats die at wind turbines each year in North America alone.
Unfortunately, much of this data is not available for public review. According to the American Bird Conservancy, “The wind industry treats information on bird and bat mortality as a proprietary trade secret. Some wind energy developers have even sued to hide this data from the public. Hawaii is currently the only state that requires the collection of mortality data by independent, third-party experts, and makes the information available to the public on request.”
Several bat populations are further challenged by 90 to 99 percent declines in the northeast due to the disease white nose syndrome, which originated in upstate New York, thus creating “the most precipitous decline in wildlife in modern history.” The bat population decline has even been compared to the near extinction of the American Bison and actual extinction of the passenger pigeon, according to Jonathan Townsend, conservation lands manager at the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, biology instructor at Jamestown Community College and board director of Greystone Bat, Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary.
Turbines and bat loss
Townsend notes, however, that in the same 10-year span that WNS has killed six million bats, so, too, has wind energy. “Wind energy is the single largest source of mortality in bats,” Townsend reported in a testimony to the State of New York Public Service Commission regarding the application of Cassadaga Wind Project for a certificate under Article 10 of the Public Service Law.
Townsend specializes in bat biology and conservation and has conducted post-construction bird and bat mortality studies at multiple wind energy sites throughout New York state. He noted that wind turbines cause direct mortality to bats in two ways:
“First, bats are hit by turbine blades as they rotate at high speeds of up to 180 mph. This kills through blunt force trauma, and is the more common mortality source for bats. A second avenue of mortality is ‘barotrauma.’ This phenomena ruptures capillaries and tissues in bats’ brains and lungs, causing fatal hemorrhaging. It is caused by a dramatic change in the barometric pressure around spinning turbines.”
“In the United States, wind energy kills between 500,000 and one million bats annually,” Townsend continued. Despite wind companies’ efforts to mitigate impacts to bats and birds by installing acoustic deterrents and/or reducing the cut-in speeds of wind turbines, Townsend and many other researchers are not hopeful. Townsend admits that curtailing the turbine blade speed can reduce bat mortality by 75 percent or more; however, due to the already disadvantaged local bat population, the most stringent reduction to speed would be necessary, which would significantly reduce the wind project’s profitability, making it an unlikely solution. Furthermore, even if every turbine in operation in the United States reduced turbine blade speed, “total mortality may be reduced…however, given that wind energy is projected to increase two to five times in the coming decades, relatively the same number of bats will be killed even after utilization of curtailment techniques, and the issue won’t be resolved.”
Townsend states that for bats to truly benefit from curtailment efforts, construction of large wind turbine installations would need to be restricted to areas without significant bat populations. In Chautauqua County, it is already too late.
“Because population dynamics in bats are driven by adult survival, the loss of adult bats to turbine-related mortality will directly impact dynamics,” Townsend noted. Due to the fact that bats are long-lived, slowly reproducing mammals, this loss takes decades and even centuries to rebound from. In the meantime, farmers are faced with the possibility that the loss of this natural pest controller could mean countless dollars spent on commercial pesticides, the effects of which may not be fully understood for some time and may take a significant toll on profits.
Although the peregrine falcon that returned to the breezy skies over Lake Erie is certainly a success story, it is necessary to consider that he may be more than that. When considered along with the other recently discovered birds and the 36 newly-powered wind turbines nearby, it is possible that the falcon is a harbinger of losses – both environmental and financial – to come.
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