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Birds and wind turbines at a crossroads Featured

Kim Kaufman and Mark Shieldcastle of Black Swamp Bird Observatory

Two environmental issues are at a crossroads here on the shores of Lake Erie. Two of our most prominent natural resources seem to be on a collision course. 

Birds and birders flock to the shores of Lake Erie. There is more of a concentration of bald eagle nests here than anywhere in the United States except Alaska. The Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways converge near here. Each spring this area is the home of the largest birding event in the country, The Biggest Week in American Birding, which last year helped attract more than 70,000 birders from all over the world. Economic impact studies conducted by Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) and Bowling Green State University show that visiting birders spend more than 30 million dollars in the local area each spring. The internationally renowned Kaufman Birding Guides and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) have made Ottawa County their home.

Energy costs are high in Ottawa County. Here where the water meets the shore, the winds are frequent and strong. Wind turbines are being constructed at schools and private industries all over the area. As a green, clean, renewable alternative to the fossil-fuel-fired plants, wind power is becoming a popular choice. Yet, even with government subsidies, wind power is still an expensive alternative form of energy. The other significant negative with wind power is that birds, especially songbirds, eagles and other raptors, can be killed by wind turbines. 

Since the burgeoning of wind power internationally and throughout the United States, there have been studies and controversies about the impact of wind turbines on birds. Here, where wind power is relatively new, and in an area where birds migrate and converge, that debate has risen to a crescendo.

Camp Perry, along the lakeshore west of Port Clinton, is in the process of erecting a wind turbine. Since 2007, The Black Swamp Bird Observatory, whose offices and bird banding station are a few miles down the shoreline at the entrance to Magee Marsh, has been expressing their concern that the Camp Perry wind turbine is at a location that endangers migrating birds, raptors and nesting eagles, including the eagles on the grounds of Camp Perry. Recently Lake Erie Business Park, between Camp Perry and Magee Marsh, revealed plans for erecting six wind turbines.

The turbines

The issues with the Camp Perry turbine and those at Lake Erie Business Park are different, according to Kim Kaufman of BSBO. Camp Perry has gone through regulatory steps and discussions and had an Environmental Assessment. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife (DOW) have found that study to be flawed, containing as many as 50 erroneous statements, said Kaufman. 

Traditional studies of avian mortality from wind turbines also have several difficulties, according to Mark Shieldcastle of BSBO. For one, once a songbird hits a wind turbine, not much is left of the songbird. Another is that scavengers often consume the evidence. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has warned that according to environmental impact analysis studies, some facilities in important bird areas could kill thousands of birds and bats per year. At Laurel Mountain, WV, in October of 2011, wind turbines killed 500 birds in one night. 

Meanwhile, Camp Perry has filed a “finding of no significant impact” and has begun construction of the wind turbine. The wildlife agencies, including the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and the ODNR Division of Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited, BSBO and the National Audubon Society, have disagreed that there is no significant impact. 

At Lake Erie Business Park, no environmental assessment studies and no wildlife review are required, since they are privately funded. Erie Township, where Camp Perry and the business park are located, has no zoning regulations. When asked about the wind turbine construction, James McKinney of Lake Erie Business Park had no comment. 

“It seems that the government has failed us, that the protection that we thought we had, we don’t. It took thirty years for us to recover the bald eagle population in Ohio, and their population could go downhill very quickly since their reproductive rates are much lower than that of songbirds,” said Shieldcastle, a nationally recognized eagle expert and widely known as the eagle person for the state of Ohio. He recalls that in 1979 there were four pairs of eagles in Ohio. Now there are 300 nesting pairs in Ohio, with the largest number in Ottawa County and more than 50 nests along the shoreline between Sandusky and Toledo. 

“If we can’t protect birds here, with all we know, where can we protect them?” inquired Kaufman.“All the energy, time and resources we are expending to protect the habitat from poorly-sited wind turbines in these high risk areas for birds and bats, we could be using to market the area to birders,“ Kim Kaufman. “

What is happening elsewhere?

The Penascal Wind Power Project in Texas is located in the middle of a major bird migration route, and uses avian radar originally developed by NASA and the U.S. Air Force to detect birds as far as four miles away. If the system determines birds are in danger of running into the rotating blades, the turbines shut down and are restarted when the birds have passed. The radar detects large birds, but cannot detect small songbirds. 

Some species of migrating birds, such as waterfowl, may learn to avoid large turbines, according to a study by The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, however the birds are then less likely to breed in their traditional areas. Also important to consider is the small songbirds that migrate through the Lake Erie coastal area by the millions migrate at night when the turbines are not visible. 

The Altamont Pass Wind Farm in California, which operates 5,000 wind turbines, has reached a settlement to replace nearly half of the smaller turbines with newer, more bird-friendly models by 2015 and provide $2.5 million for raptor habitat restoration. However, they have replaced many of the turbines and the new ones are still killing birds. 

The Nov. 24 LA Times reported that last month, in the first case of its kind, Duke Energy Renewables pleaded guilty to killing birds at its large wind turbine farms in Wyoming and has agreed to pay $1 million as punishment. Duke admitted to violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act in connection with the deaths of more than 160 birds, including 14 golden eagles, according to court documents. The federal government warned that it was imperative that wind turbine companies research possible effects on bird life before building sites because “at the present time, no post-construction remedies” except shut-down can make wind turbines safe for birds where collision risk is high. Duke is working to install radar technology and with field biologists to detect birds and shut down turbines when necessary. The compliance plan will cost Duke $600,000 per year, according to court documents.

What now:

Kaufman favors legislation that features “No Go Zones” for wind turbines in critical areas for birds. At present all guidelines are voluntary. Though all wind turbines are subject to the Endangered Species Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, those fines and remedies are expensive and could be avoided entirely by regulations for proper siting of wind turbines.

The American Bird Conservancy and BSBO support wind power that is bird-smart and that employs 1) careful siting 2) operation and construction mitigation 3) bird monitoring and 4) compensation, to reduce and redress any unavoidable bird mortality and habitat loss. 

Local residents also object to wind turbines in these locations and many have expressed concern about the impact to bald eagles. A private citizens’ group has placed a billboard on State Route 2 near Camp Perry speaking to the potential impacts to birds, waterfowl hunting and tourism. 

Black Swamp Bird Observatory continues to have discussions with other wildlife and regulatory and government agencies. They have also launched a petition-writing and social media campaign that, in just a few days had already generated 40,000 hits. Early this week,The American Bird Conservancy joined the BSBO campaign. “We are going to pull out all the stops,” said Kaufman. “We see this as an opportunity for our community to work together and to be held up on a national scale as the people who got wind energy right.” 

For more information go to www.bsbobird.org and www.nationalwind.org and www.abcbirds.org.

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