18 December 2010

Addressing Bird Deaths at Communications Towers

The programmatic environmental assessment on the take of migratory birds by communication towers in the Gulf Coast area now being undertaken by the Federal Communications Commission is a court-ordered action, based upon a lawsuit won on appeal by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and others, against the FCC.

The focus is the impact of communication towers on migratory birds. The FCC regulates communication tower frequencies through licensing requirements.

In recent years, ABC, National Audubon Society, the Ornithological Council, and other groups concerned with bird mortality at communication towers, have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine measures to reduce "take" of protected migratory birds, now numbering 1,007 different species. A conservatively estimated 4-5 million birds are killed each year due to collisions with towers in the United States, though the actual extent is not known and could be much higher. Until a cumulative impacts analysis is conducted nationwide, the more "true" level of take cannot be determined.

The unpermitted "take" of a migratory bird, such as by incidental or accidental means including tower collision, is a potential criminal violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, as amended. MBTA is a strict liability statute where proof of intent is not required. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act also affords protection to both Bald and Golden Eagles. It, too, is a strict liability statute. Listed birds and other species are also protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Executive Order 13186, issued in January 2001, also requires that federal agencies protect migratory birds, and must develop and implement a memorandum of understanding with the USFWS that will "promote the conservation of migratory bird populations."

Dr. Albert M. Manville, a wildlife biologist in the Branch of Bird Conservation, Division of Migratory Bird Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been actively working on the bird strikes issue for many years. Pertinent examples of his involvement include:

  1. Instrumental in establishing the Communication Tower Working Group in 1999 - which he chairs on behalf of the Service - to gather information pertinent to the subject;
  2. Helped develop USFWS communication tower guidelines in 2000;
  3. Provided a lengthy evaluation to the FCC of tools, approaches and changes needed to make communication towers more bird-friendly based on FCC proposed rulemaking in 2007;
  4. Published several papers on avian-communication tower collision and radiation issues; and
  5. Prepared a briefing paper in April 2009, on the need for research into the cumulative impacts of communication towers on migratory birds.

These efforts are intended to reduce the impacts which an increasing number of communication towers have on hundreds of species of migratory birds.

Towers are known dangers, depending upon their height, location, structure (e.g., monopole, lattice, or guyed -- including how many spans of guy wires are present), and the type of lighting used, as defined and required by Federal Aviation Administration's obstruction marking and lighting circular, soon to be updated.

More recently, Manville was involved as the Project Officer in a research study conducted at 24 communication towers in Michigan intended to scientifically evaluate the impact of communication towers on birds migrating through Michigan.

"Rather than litigate, funds were used to conduct a detailed, multi-year study," Manville said. The focus of the study was on tower lighting, height and presence of guy wires, he explained. "By extinguishing the red, steady-burning lighting on tall towers -- the so-called L-810 lights -- but leaving on the red flashing incandescent or red strobe lighting, bird mortality was reduced by up to 72% at some towers.

"This was an astounding finding with significant ramifications for making towers more bird-friendly," stated Manville. "White lighting is not affected since L-810s are not required on white-strobe-lit towers."

The Principal Investigator of this study was Dr. Joelle Gehring, with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory. Dr. Gehring is currently conducting a follow-up tall tower study in Michigan and New Jersey funded by the U.S. Coast Guard, the preliminary results of which are replicating findings from the earlier Michigan study. Manville also serves as the project officer for this study.

For Manville, there is an obvious fix which can significantly reduce bird mortality: "modify the lighting standard" by phasing out steady burning red lights. This lighting can be replaced by flashing red lights, red strobes, or white strobes.

"Based on the new published bird-friendly standards, especially for lighting, the FCC should implement proposed rulemaking submitted for public comment in 2007," Manville said. The FCC has not yet implemented the memorandum of understanding required by Executive Order 13186, although arguably they are an independent Federal commission rather than a Federal agency. However, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission -- another independent Federal commission -- is about to sign an MOU with the Service under the Executive Order.

"The public needs to better understand the documented impacts of communications towers on migratory birds, published in the U.S. literature since at least 1949, as well as what can be done to significantly reduce bird take," Manville said. "With the new lighting research findings, this should be a priority."

The public can provide comments to the FCC on scoping concerning their Antenna Structure Registry database. Comments are due to the FCC by no later than January 14, 2011.

Nebraska Situation

The Ecological Services Office of the F.W.S. regularly reviews applications for communication and cellular towers. The agency provides recommendations during the planning process for any regulated tower.

During the past couple of months, about 12-15 reviews have been conducted, mostly for cellular towers, according to Martha Tacha, an agency biologist in Nebraska.

"Only three of these towers were not self-supporting or did not address agency recommendations up front," she said.

The USFWS has a set of recommended measures that should be included in tower construction, and the following list is a summary, used for a recent evaluation:

1. Collocate with a nearby tower or other existing structure, if one exists.
2. Construct a tower less than 199 feet above ground level. Try to keep all towers unguyed, monopole or lattice-supported, and unlit. If a taller tower is built that uses guy-wires, install bird deflectors on the wires to reduce the potential for bird collisions. The deflectors should be maintained as long as the tower is present.
3. Where possible under FAA standards, the tower should not be lit. If lights are needed, the agency recommends the use of flashing white or red strobe lights or blinking red incandescent lighting to be used as aircraft warning beacons. Use of steady-burning red lights should be avoided whenever possible.
4. An self-standing tower should not be built within one mile of any wetlands, wet meadows or riverine habitats.
5. The new tower should be designed to accommodate at least two additional users.
6. Security lighting should be down-shielded to keep light within the boundary of the site. Security lights should be motion or heat activated, not left "on" all night.
7. If the tower is constructed, there was a request to allow USFWS and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and/or their contractors to conduct dead-bird searches on a regular or irregular basis. If such studies are conducted by independent contractors or tower consultants, studies should be coordinated with the USFWS Field Office, appropriate permits acquired where necessary, and results should be provided to USFWS and the Commission.
8. Within one month after construction is completed, post-construction photographs and a signed statement that the above conservation measures were implemented, need to be provided to the F.W.S. and F.C.C.
9. The tower and building should be removed once the facility is no longer in use or is abandoned.

The agency has recently added additional requirements that any projects done during the bird breeding survey, should have surveys done to "determine the absence or presence of breeding birds and their nests." Also, what avoidance measures that can be implemented to avoid the take of migratory birds.

Our office "is not aware of any studies of tower kills in Nebraska," Tacha said.

"It is important to have this kind of information."