Wind Development Threatens Iconic American Birds
Safeguards needed to prevent population declines in the Whooping Crane and
Greater Sage-Grouse, and reduce mass mortality among eagles and songbirds
Washington, D.C. - December 29, 2010 – Today, American Bird Conservancy announced that three iconic American bird species face especially severe threats from wind energy development.
"Golden Eagles, Whooping Cranes, and Greater Sage-Grouse are likely to be among the birds most affected by poorly planned and sited wind projects,” said Kelly Fuller, Wind Program Coordinator for American Bird Conservancy, the nation’s leading bird conservation organization. “Unless the government acts now to require that the wind industry respect basic wildlife safeguards, these three species will be at ever greater risk.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) currently estimates that more than 400,000 birds are already being killed each year after being struck by the fast-moving blades of wind turbines. This figure is expected to rise significantly, and will likely eventually pass the million mark as wind power becomes increasingly ubiquitous under a Department of Energy plan to supply 20% of America's power through wind by 2030.
Golden Eagles have already been one of the major victims of the largest wind farm in the United States at Altamont Pass in California. The Altamont wind farm was sited in an area that eagles and other raptors use to hunt ground squirrels and other small mammals. Using the now-outdated towers as perches, thousands of raptors have been killed as they launch out through the spinning turbines towards their prey. While new tower designs have been developed, they don’t completely eliminate the risk. Much of the additional wind build-out planned for the western U.S. is expected to occur in areas used by Golden Eagles.
A further threat to birds is expected to come from the major transmission line build-out required to service new wind farms. Large birds such as the endangered Whooping Crane can fail to see the wires in time and die after colliding with them. According to a recent FWS report, “The Great Plains states traversed by the Whooping Cranes during their fall and spring migrations are among the windiest states in the nation. The best places for wind energy development in these states overlap to a large extent the Whooping Crane migration corridor, and many of these areas provide attractive stopover sites. Thus, the potential for impacts to Whooping Cranes from future wind energy development is high.”
The threat to yet more birds comes not from collisions, but from loss of their habitat due to wind farm construction. The Greater Sage-Grouse is already reduced to a tiny fraction of its former range and population size due to degradation of sagebrush habitat in the West. The proliferation of giant turbines looming over the habitat can cause birds to abandon remaining traditional breeding grounds. The total habitat footprint from wind farms is predicted to exceed 20,000 square miles by 2030, much of it in states such as Wyoming, one of the last remaining sage-grouse strongholds.
While the threat from wind development stands out for these three iconic American birds, it is by no means limited to a small handful of species. More than ten billion birds are estimated to migrate across the country each spring and fall, many at night. Wind turbines will be an unexpected obstacle to these migrations. Plans to build a wind farm at Canada's Point Pelee—a migration hotspot on the Great Lakes—were recently shelved due to a public outcry over the expected impact on songbirds, but other wind developments are planned along the U.S. side of the lakes, and in other areas through which migrating birds funnel, with as-yet uncalculated bird impacts.
While Whooping Cranes are protected under the Endangered Species Act and Golden Eagles under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, most migratory birds are only protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which has seldom been enforced to prevent such mortality as is predicted as a result of wind development. The Greater Sage-Grouse, meanwhile, currently receives no federal legal protection, though several states have stepped up to protect remaining core breeding areas. In the face of increasing wind development, realizing the potential for state agencies to do yet more will be important for this species.
“Without strong standards designed to protect birds through smart siting, technology, and mitigation programs, wind power will soon affect millions of birds. Given the subsidies paid to the wind industry by the government, many of the negative impacts to birds will be unwittingly funded by the American taxpayer,” said Fuller. “We understand the problem and we know the solutions. American Bird Conservancy supports wind energy, and some operators are already working to protect birds, but we need to make all wind powerbird smart now before major build out occurs.”
American Bird Conservancy (www.abcbirds.org) conserves native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas by safeguarding the rarest species, conserving and restoring habitats, and reducing threats while building capacity in the bird conservation movement.