Dear EarthTalk: One of the objections to wind power has been that the turbines can kill birds. Has there been some progress in developing bird-friendly wind power?
— Marcie Mahoney, Boston, MA
Bird collisions have been one of the primary negatives of the recent growth in wind power across the United States and beyond. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates that almost a half million birds are killed each year in the U.S. by wind turbines. “Birds can die in collisions with the turbine blades, towers, power lines, or related structures, and can also be impacted through habitat destruction from the siting of turbines, power lines, and access roads,” the non-profit American Bird Conservancy reports. “Some birds, such as sage-grouse, are particularly sensitive to the presence of turbines, and can be scared away from their breeding grounds several miles away from a wind development.”
In response to this growing problem, the USFWS released new federal guidelines in March 2012 for land-based wind developers trying to avoid or minimize impacts to birds and their habitats. The guidelines are voluntary at this point, but U.S. wind developers interested in a smoother ride through various permitting processes and the blessing of environmental groups—several were consulted extensively in drawing up the new guidelines—are doing their best to make their designs and implementations comply.
The federal government’s 22-member Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee, which included experts from the National Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, Massachusetts Audubon and Bat Conservation International, developed the guidelines. Committee members report they are optimistic that the new guidelines provide a path to better protection for birds and their habitats.
“The guidelines steer wind turbines away from vital habitat…and toward land already marked by development,” says David Yarnold, National Audubon’s President. “They give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a place at the table for siting decisions; they help protect sites with high potential risk for birds; and they minimize habitat fragmentation.” He adds that the guidelines are based on the best available science and “provide a roadmap to better bird protections across each of America’s four great flyways.”
Audubon pushed to ensure that the guidelines address habitat fragmentation, one of the biggest potential impacts of wind development on birds. Wind developers that cooperate with the guidelines will avoid dividing important habitats like forests and grasslands, thus maintaining their suitability for wildlife.
“These first-ever federal guidelines are a game-changer and big win for both wildlife and clean energy,” says Yarnold. “By collaborating with conservationists instead of slugging it out, the wind power industry gains vital support to expand and create jobs, and wildlife gets the protection crucial for survival.”
For its part, the American Bird Conservancy would like to take the voluntary out of the guidelines and instead require wind developers to comply. The group recently filed a petition with the U.S. Department of the Interior calling for mandatory rules protecting millions of birds from the negative impacts of wind energy and rewarding responsible wind energy development.