08 March 2015

More About Birds and Windfarms

By Marilyn McNabb. March 2015. Babbling Brook 24(3): 5. Used with permission.

The National Audubon report on climate change and birds gives the grim news that about half of the bird species in North America will be at risk of extinction by the end of this century if we pursue business as usual with green house gas emissions. We know we have to make lots of changes, and quickly.

Despite the fact that the relative proportion of the cause of bird deaths by windfarms compared to cats compared to cell and radio towers is about 1 to 8 to 23, we need to do as Audubon chapters have done across the country and keep a careful eye on windfarms' effects on birds and bats. In addition to collisions, windfarm roads and towers may cause damage by fragmenting habitats, creating migration barriers, introducing alien species, and disturbing or displacing wildlife.

Bird Fatalities

In a presentation January 7 to citizens in Cortland worried about the effects of a windfarm in the early planning stages, Carolyn Jezierski, Wind Energy and Wildlife Project Coordinator at UNL, said that so far, because they want to be (or at least appear to be) environmentally sensitive, wind developers have generally participated constructively in discussions with the state.

Both federal Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) standards are voluntary, but USFWS has the power to sue if a completed project is violating the laws it enforces. Given the enormous potential for wind development in Nebraska, these negotiations could get more contentious as the numbers and pace of wind installations increase. Conflict has sharpened at the national level.

In late December, the USFWS took PacifiCorp Energy to federal court in Wyoming for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Federal investigators found the carcasses of 38 golden eagles and 336 other protected birds at two PacifiCorp wind projects. The Wildlife Service says it had made recommendations earlier to PacifiCorp which were ignored. Priority for enforcement in court by USFWS is given to projects were built in defiance of Fish and Wildlife recommendations. PacifiCorp has agreed to pay $2.5 million in fines and restitution, with most of the money going toward mitigation efforts to reduce bird deaths.

Bird deaths at wind turbines

Rep. Jeff Duncan (SC), introduced a bill in January to attack the legal basis for USFWS's authority which rests on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act. It's so extreme it probably doesn’t have much chance to pass as proposed, but it alerts us to the likelihood of attempts to weaken federal enforcement power. The source of this push is almost certainly oil and gas companies which are subject to much more stringent enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treat Act than wind and solar farms. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the leading contributors to Rep. Duncan's 2014 campaign were oil and gas companies.

Bill would gut bird protection laws

Nebraska is in the middle of a public comment period on a 33-page document called "Mitigation Guidelines for Wind Energy Development in Nebraska.”

The deadline for comments is March 31 and should be emailed to windwildlife@unl.edu. I hope some Audubon folks can submit comments.

Mitigation guidelines

The Guidelines classify Nebraska into minimum, moderate, and maximum mitigation areas. This classification, along with a site visit, helps determine the state's recommendations for mitigation ranging from no action at all to purchasing a similar piece of land to be protected.

It is interesting to compare federal rules on the same subject. See Final U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Land-based Wind Energy Guidelines. The federal rules are much more comprehensive. For example, the federal rules tell developers when they should begin consulting with the agency, direct what methods and metrics to use in their field studies, and require two levels of studies of bird deaths to be done after the farm is operational.

FWS guidelines

As I read the proposed "Mitigation Guidelines," there is no provision for public review except very late in the process where NGPC makes a recommendation to the Power Review Board to approve or disapprove a project. It appears the two agencies perform their negotiations with developers behind closed doors. At no point, even after a windfarm is built, is there provision for public access to the agreements made by the state agency with the developers. It appears the Guidelines are written by wildlife experts with wind developers in mind as the audience. But the public has a stake in these outcomes as well. I'm hoping some Wachiskans can propose how some degree of public involvement might work.

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