COS and Sierra Club Chicago Group designed a program that brought in experts from around the U.S. to talk about the impacts of wind turbines, one of the cleanest energy production methods, on wildlife.

Our panel was comprised of three pre-eminent U.S.-based wildlife biologists who work on wind issues. It is very rare to get experts of this caliber together in one place and the meeting room was absolutely packed with COS members, Sierrans, unaffiliated birders, friends and allies.

Panelists were:

  • Jeff Gosse, Regional Energy Coordinator for the upper Midwest, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS);
  • Michael Hutchins, National Coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy’s (ABC) Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign;
  • Keith M. Shank, natural resources manager and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) main wind power liaison. Sierra Club’s Terri Treacy was the moderator.

Each of the three presentations was eye-opening.

Michael Hutchins’ program focused on the dangers to birds from current wind turbine design and poor siting choices. The other big killers of birds in the U.S. are building collisions, communication towers and feral cats.

Wind turbines kill hundreds of thousands of birds annually, an estimate that probably is quite low because mortality of common and threatened and endangered birds by wind production facilities is voluntary. Most wind farms are private and do not allow external observers to count dead birds and bats and there is no public transparency requirement for mortality reports submitted to USFWS.

ABC along with other environmental groups (including the Sierra Club) has been somewhat successful in stopping the construction of wind farms in sensitive areas, especially in corridors with high bird-and-bad migration.

There are wind-generation devices that are safer for wildlife, such as bladeless turbines. Combined with appropriate siting, ABC argues that Bird Safe Wind is not only possible, but also the morally and legally responsible way to generate clean wind power.

Michael is working in Washington with Congressmen from both parties to write bird safe wind legislation. States like Illinois may also enact local siting and wind turbine design guidelines.

Keith Shank of the IDNR explained Illinois’ “Wild West” reputation in the wind industry because the state has no wind regulations. Environmental impact statements are not required of wind farm developers in the state.

Keith said IDNR must be consulted when state or federal threatened/endangered species may be impacted by a wind production development, but the IDNR has no regulatory power unless the development is offshore in Lake Michigan. The state of Illinois owns the lake bed and therefore has jurisdiction over wind power development.

USFWS’s Jeff Gosse presented amazing radar research about bird and bat migration around the Great Lakes, funded by a Great Lakes Restoration Fund grant.

A small team of wildlife biologists have been conducting radar studies at various points around the Great Lakes for several years. Radar can easily pick up bird migration and the USFWS team charted avian activity over water, near shore and inland at all times of the day and night during migration periods in spring and fall. Most bird migration takes place at night and the USFWS radar pictures showed the huge amount of bird movement as it ebbed and flowed throughout the night.

USFWS also has been working establishing the height at which most birds migrate at in order to check wind developers’ claims that “birds migrate well above turbine blade height.” Jeff said based on preliminary data, many birds do fly below and within the blade sweep of turbines.

The audience also learned a lot about bats from the panelists, including federally endangered Indiana Bats and Long-eared Bats that have been proposed for federal endangered species status.

Population numbers are known for cave-dwelling bats, like Long-eared, because they are colonial, hibernate in their caverns and are stationary in winter so can be counted.

Not so for tree-dwelling bats. They are not really colonial; they move around a lot and migrate so it's very hard to count them.

What is clear is that millions of bats migrate along the shores of the Great Lakes and mortality from wind turbine encounters likely is much higher than for birds, Jeff said. The migration and mortality estimates are based on sight observations because to date, scientists can’t track reliably detect bats in the air. Jeff and his team are seeking new methods to track bats by radar from outside the realm of biology.

One big difference re: bird vs. bat populations and mortality from turbines is that birds fledge many young, but bats usually birth only one pup per year. So wind turbine mortality impacts overall bat populations far more negatively than it does birds.

Each panelist stressed their conviction that clean wind power is an important part of America’s clean energy future. Each speaker stressed that wind-generated power is not without cost, the cost measured in wildlife mortality.

Safe siting and turbine design are essential.  But one factor was clear: Offshore wind turbines in the Great Lakes may be too costly in terms of wildlife mortality unless bird/bat-safe technologies are used. Many terrestrial sites in Illinois and elsewhere, on the other hand, likely can host wind farms with minimal impact to wildlife.

- post contributed by Christine Williamson