Wildlife Friendly Wind Energy

Wind turbines in Judith Gap, Montana.The development of more sustainable, domestically available energy resource options is becoming a priority within the U.S. Of those options, wind energy is at the top of the list. By 2012, it is projected that more than 155,000 turbines will dot the U.S. landscape. Several benefits of wind energy have been identified including economic benefits of development, renewability of the resource, lack of water consumption and emissions during operation, and relatively low environmental impact on humans and landscapes (U.S. Department of Energy factsheet).

Even though wind energy provides a clean and affordable domestic energy source, there are environmental concerns surrounding the issues of bird mortalities, migratory bird routes, and species habitat disruption. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimate that thousands of migratory birds are killed annually by wind turbine rotors (FWS factsheet). Though this estimate is a fraction compared to bird deaths caused by collision with other structures such as power lines, windows, and automobiles, it is still a significant number when referring to the mortality of birds that are listed as endangered or threatened by the Endangered Species Act. Additionally, no scientifically-validated bird or bat deterrents have yet been discovered (except “blade feathering” where turbines are made temporarily inoperable), so it is imperative to also foster wildlife-friendly turbine site selection.

Wildlife habitat disruption and fragmentation is another concern with the development of wind farms. In 2005 the Western Governors’ Association’s Wind Task Force Report estimated that a 100 megawatt wind farm typically extends across 4,942 acres with between 50-67 towers. This is about 148 acres of land displaced for wind towers, roads and ancillary facilities. Because the displaced acreage is spread across the entire wind farm, the landscape can be fragmented and habitats disrupted across ~5000 acres.

Migratory route alterations are also a concern with wind farms. Recent studies document that birds crossing wind farm areas alter their routes to avoid stimulus such as lights and blades cutting through the air. However, more research is needed to document route alterations and develop predictive models to help managers address potential wildlife impacts of wind energy.

To address concerns associated with wind energy, three DOI bureaus, FWS, Geological Survey, and National Park Service (NPS), have recently recommended that research related to wind energy development is high priority in the U.S. Upper Midwest. Their “Report on Information Needs to Address Wind Power Development in the Midwest (February 2007)” identifies five potential projects, and research at NOROCK addresses two of those including 1) bird migration elevations in relation to wind turbines and 2) development of a risk assessment and decision support system for wildlife friendly wind power.

The long term objective of NOROCK research is to develop a model of how birds use important landscapes so that managers can make knowledgeable decisions on wind farm development sites that are more protective of migratory bird species, both on land and in flight.

Such a model is being developed in collaboration with scientists at the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, the EROS Data Center, and the Western Geographic Science Center. The key to these efforts hinges on the close cooperation with field managers and biologists in the FWS and NPS from locales such as Horicon National Wildlife Refuge and the Leopold Wetland Management District in Wisconsin and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan.

whooping cranesNOROCK research efforts in Wisconsin focus on using structured decision making to reach consensus among managers and scientists for building the model. The model, itself, is expected to be an integration of a traditional GIS approach with ways of encoding ecologic knowledge methodologies known for their ability to also encode the certainties associated with hypothesized cause-effect relationships. The intent is to provide sound decision support by combining knowledge about such diverse things as geomorphology, weather, habitat, bird behavior, and management actions. Researchers will build a model based on Horicon NWR, but the objective is to build a landscape model that will be readily applicable to other locations, with strong interest in whooping crane habitat conservation issues.

For more information contact:
Rick Sojda, Wildlife Biologist