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Wildlife problems in search of solutions

An attempt by the wind industry and wildlife campaigners in the United States to find common ground on development of wind power stations failed to reach any positive conclusion at the end of a two day meeting in November in Washington DC. Instead, a picture emerged of a confused wind industry seeking clear direction from wildlife experts.

Clearly needed from wildlife experts is a positive approach to working with the wind industry to find sites for wind power stations where birds and animals will not be unduly endangered or disturbed

An attempt by the wind industry and wildlife campaigners in the United States to find common ground on development of wind power stations failed to reach any positive conclusion at the end of a two day meeting in November in Washington DC. Instead, a picture emerged of a confused wind industry seeking clear direction from wildlife experts -- and a growing number of wildlife issues in need of resolution.

Roughly 100 representatives from industry, government, wildlife groups and wildlife agencies met at the offices of RESOLV, a Washington-based mediating organisation, to debate the meaning of the term "biological significance" in connection with wildlife and wind turbine interactions. The meeting was sponsored by the National Wind Coordinating Committee, a collaborative funded in part by federal money and set up to provide a forum where issues of relevance to the wind industry can be discussed.

Disagreement over the past several years about whether the numbers of birds or bats killed at various wind turbine sites have been of scientific significance -- as opposed to emotional significance -- prompted the attempt to define "biological significance." All agreed that other sources of mortality, like deaths at communication towers, bird-vehicular strikes, and bird-building collisions are substantially greater than the roughly estimated 40,000 or so birds killed each year at current US wind turbine sites. Consequently, argue some in the industry, wind turbine bird kills are not "biologically significant."

Acrimonious

After a day of debate over the meaning of "biologically significant," no consensus was found. A series of provocative presentations resulted in emotions running high and opinions polarising. At times, discussion bordered on the acrimonious, particularly when advocates from several non-profit organisations put forward questions.

Biologist Dale Strickland offered a definition which said that "biological significance" must have a "measurable impact" on the stability of a particular population. "Very small impacts may be biologically significant -- such as the death of an endangered Kirtland's warbler, an endangered short-tailed albatross, or an endangered Indiana bat, or the disruption of or disturbance to a prairie grouse lek." (A lek is a type of nesting area used by some birds).

A wildlife advocate charged that large scale loss of life, like the recent bat kill at the Mountaineer wind farm in West Virginia (Windpower Monthly, October 2003) may or may not be "biologically significant," but it was most definitely "socially significant."

The US Fish and Wildlife Service's Al Manville assured that his agency "endorses wind." He added: "On the other hand, there are also challenges." Manville said the wind industry is facing a number of difficult wildlife issues that need to be resolved, including problems with bat populations in the Appalachian mountains, problems with grassland birds on the southern Great Plains, and questions relating to future offshore wind construction.

Biological significance involves having "a measurable impact on a population," Manville said. In some cases, "very small impacts may be biologically significant," he warned. Manville, a biologist with the FWS Division of Migratory Bird Management, has worked in the past for the wildlife advocacy agency Defenders of Wildlife, an aggressive non-profit organisation specialising in litigation.

Manville and others at the federal agency released a set of voluntary siting guidelines for wind power developers in the summer. At the November meeting, Manville suggested that developers would be well advised to "contact our nearest ecological services field office" to discuss appropriate wildlife studies to be done on the site. If they work co-operatively with the federal agency on a volunteer basis, Manville said, companies would then be less likely to be liable to prosecution if threatened or endangered species were accidentally killed at a turbine site.

"We can't give you a get-out-of-jail free card," Manville said, but "if you co-operate with us," in the event of an unexpected death of an endangered or threatened species, prosecutors would likely be less aggressive.

Manville ended by taking a hard line. He said that some people in the wind industry may believe that they are immune to prosecution for illegally killing a protected animal. "This is a very dangerous attitude," he said. Manville implied that prosecutions against wind industry companies were already in the works, but he declined to elaborate further.

using rigorous science

Gerald Winegrad of the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), an influential and respected bird protection group in Washington DC, called wind energy "a wind-win for birds and clean, renewable energy for America's future." He continued: "ABC fully supports the development of wind energy in the US as an alternative to fossil fuelled power plants to help meet the current and growing demand for electrical energy."

He emphasised repeatedly, however, that potential impact on birds and bats must be thoroughly examined "using rigorous science" by developers at every site. "The planning projects need to be done early," he said. "Location, location, location. It's extremely important."

Wind industry executives countered that compared to the numbers of birds killed by communication towers, the effect on birds by wind plant is relatively benign. Estimates of communication tower kills range up to 50 million a year in the US. "We're getting unfairly targeted," complained one executive. Other industry people added that they believe wind energy is being held to an unreasonably high standard, just because the industry has a green label.

"The cumulative impacts of all the turbines could become important," countered Winegrad. "We are glad that [turbine numbers] are growing, but we want them to grow in a way that doesn't impact on the birds."

The American Wind Energy Association's Tom Gray spoke in general terms about the future of wind energy. He said the 6000 MW of wind energy in the US will offset the equivalent of eight million tons of coal, 25 million barrels of oil or 150 million cubic feet of natural gas and all the pollutants associated with them.

A string of independent biologists, consultants and scientists presented information about their on-going research into the effect of wind farms on wildlife. Several wind industry scientists complained bitterly about the demands being made at the meeting by wildlife campaigners. "We spend a lot of time and we do our homework," said one. "We do the work on flyways.....We do that regularly, since we owe it to our shareholders....We need clarity as to what's expected of us. If the bar is going to be raised, then we need to know about this."

Middle ground

Biologist Rob Manes struck some much welcomed middle ground. Manes, co-author in 2002 of a paper entitled "Wind Energy and Wildlife: An Attempt at Pragmatism," has a background in managing wildlife for hunting purposes. He said that from his point of view the major problem facing the wind industry is not individual large kills, or even long term incremental "takes," as deaths are referred to. Instead, he said, the wind industry executives ought to begin thinking about habitat disturbance.

"If you take care of habitat, you can withstand a lot of mortality," he said. "We need to reframe this whole discussion." He made it clear that he was concerned about the effect of large scale wind projects on grassland birds -- a species not prone to nest near tall, man-made structures.

He also believes wildlife organisations bear some of the blame for the current controversies. They "have not engaged in the issue responsibly," he said. To focus on individual kills while ignoring the issue of habitat preservation, he said, "Is sweeping the corner of the barn while the stalls are on fire." Instead, wildlife organisations and the wind industry ought to be working together to locate the best possible sites for wind power stations that will have least possible impact on wildlife.

Manes said that sites for large scale wind farms in the Texas-Oklahoma-Kansas southern Great Plains will have a "very large footprint" which could likely have an adverse effect on the nesting of various species of prairie grouse, "icons of North American plains wildlife." This is because the species' leks are located in precisely the same areas that are most suitable for wind development.

He said that wind industry representatives have been diligent in asking about the best places to build in order avoid causing additional problems for the birds, but that they complain that they have not received clear answers to their questions. In particular, he pushed wildlife advocates not to "overstate," in order to protect their own interests, any environmental and ecological perils that might possibly be connected with wind power projects.

"It's incumbent upon the wildlife community," he warned, "to answer this question.... If they can't answer this question, they won't be able to play in the game."

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