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GAINING A BETTER UNDERSTANDING

In an indication of increasing co-operation between the wind industry and the US government on bird kills, policy may be changed so that inadvertent kills in wind farms may no longer be illegal. Meanwhile, the National Audubon Society suggests a two phase permit for wind farms, with the first phase subject to assessment of a project's impact before the second phase can go ahead. Bird kills in wind farms are still making headlines in the US and Spain, but environmentalists remain split on the issue with some opposed to wind and others supporting it.

Within a few years killing birds inadvertently in wind farms may no longer be illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The US government might change policy dramatically, allowing unintended but limited avian deaths on wind farms as is already permitted as a consequence of some other human activities, according to Paul Schmidt of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

But Schmidt cautions that such a policy change would not affect kills that are illegal under the Endangered Species Act, which protects certain rare birds such as golden eagles. Schmidt, chief of the service's migratory bird management office, was speaking at the American Wind Energy Association's Windpower '95 conference in March.

He says a change in policy would, however, only be possible as long as the wind industry continues to work on reducing bird kills and as long as species are not threatened. Attorneys from the Department of Interior are already reviewing the issue, he said, but he anticipates the process taking years, not months. His comments seem to indicate increasing co-operation between the wind industry and the US government on bird kills. He notes that his office and the industry have the common concern of protecting natural resources. Still, it is now illegal to kill migratory birds except for certain authorised "incidental takes," such as hunting.

In stark contrast to Schmidt, Jan Beyea of the National Audubon Society took a far less conciliatory stance at Windpower '95, saying he wants to see the wind industry spend $5 million a year on scientific research that can withstand peer review. Research needs are "way beyond" what is now being done, says Beyea, whose organisation is a major bird environmental group. "The most important use of DOE dollars is the bird issue," he said of the Department of Energy's wind budget.

Even so, there is a possible win-win situation, Beyea points out. Habitat depletion is the main issue threatening birds, not collisions. And wind can help prevent habitat loss. He also says the ornithological lobby is one to be reckoned with -- the explosion of the spotted owl issue that has halted logging in parts of the Pacific Northwest could have been averted.

At the conference, Beyea cited kills of golden eagles in the Altamont Pass and griffon vultures in Spain as the two worst problems. In the future, ducks and cranes in the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska could become an issue for wind; but potential problems seem less looming in Texas, Wyoming and Montana, he said.

Beyea suggests that wind projects should not get open ended permits, only a "first permit cap" for enough development to get scientific information on any bird problem, perhaps 150 turbines or 150 MW. The two phase permit would have to be in co-operation with the industry. More population studies are also needed on the whooping crane in the US Midwest and even the [common] red-tailed hawk. "We want wind power to succeed," he says. "Energy impacts are one of the most dominant threats to the environment," he adds. "But we [also] have global warming."

Meanwhile bird kills in the Altamont Pass increased dramatically last year, US Fish and Wildlife agent Cynthia Struzik told a local newspaper, the Tri-Valley Herald. She said however, in late March, that exact figures were not available. And after more than a year of scientific study, two draft environmental impact statements (EIS) for wind projects in the Pacific Northwest are raising concerns about bird kills. Some environmental groups are responding to the studies by calling for the wind projects to start small, until fixes are developed that do not impact birds. This two phase approach, they say, would also provide a model for the entire north west region.

Two 115 MW projects proposed for the region by Kenetech Windpower -- consisting of 345 turbines -- and an adjacent 25 MW wind project proposed by the Conservation and Renewable Energy System (CARES), would potentially most severely impact birds. The CARES project is to consist of 91 AWT-26 turbines from FloWind. The draft impact statements, which each examined the cumulative impact of both projects, were issued in March. Some 22 special status bird species, including bald eagles, may be present in the vicinity of the projects, says the draft EIS on the Kenetech site. Even so, the sites do not appear to be major migratory fly-ways. The report also predicts that from six to 20 birds could be killed annually, at the Columbia Hills sites near Goldendale. Of the 22 bird species, 15 were observed at the site, of which one, the peregrine falcon is both state and federally protected. For its part, the CARES report also suggests the area is used by raptors, both resident and migrating, as well as passerines such as the western bluebird. It said, however, that the area is only used to a minor degree by wintering bald eagles compared with eastern Washington state. Various raptor protection measures are planned for the CARES site.

Public comments on both projects were heard at a packed hearing on April 5. Environmental groups represented at the meeting appeared split on the issue, with some supporting wind as a clean, renewable energy and others, especially bird groups, opposing the two projects. Dennis White of the Columbia Gorge Audubon Society, adamantly opposed to both projects, warned that his group will oppose all large wind projects throughout the Pacific Northwest region until siting criteria have been developed and turbines are employed that do not kill birds or destroy habitat.

In contrast, an anti-nuclear group, Northwest Advocates of Portland, lauded Kenetech for its bird research, saying that those who opposed wind farms were hypocritical, as electrical tension wires have been killing birds for years. "And now all of a sudden we're worried about birds?" asked the group's Eugene Rosalie. "Everything we do is going to have an impact."

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