Duke Energy, the operator of two major wind farms in Wyoming, was recently fined $1 million dollars for eagles and other birds killed by wind turbines. Although I’ve got little love for Duke Energy (they single-handedly killed 900,000 fish in North Carolina), I do care about the continued expansion of wind power in this country.
This case brings the cyclical debate of wildlife vs. clean energy to the federal level. Yes, I meant cyclical. Here’s how it usually goes (in my head):
1. “Fossil fuels are killing the planet and everything on it (including birds). Let’s switch to renewables like solar and wind.”
2. “Oh man, birds are being killed by wind turbines, and I love birds and believe endangered species should be protected.
3. “Punish the wind farms for killing birds!”
4. “Wait, if we stop building wind farms, or use $1 million fines to discourage companies from building them, it just continues our dependence on fossil fuels.”
5. “See number 1.”
Then I did a little bit of research, looking to bird conservation experts about what the biggest threats are to bald eagle and golden eagle populations (the two kinds of birds that prompted the fine in Wyoming).
Interestingly, I didn’t find a single one that named wind energy development as a major threat. In fact, when you compare the numbers, wind turbines are a relatively small threat (responsible for about 13 deaths a year), and there are some easy things we can do to alert birds to this new danger.
4 Things That Kill More Protected Birds Than Wind Farms
1. DDT: Depending on your age, you might remember that bald eagles nearly went extinct in the 1960s because of the widespread use of a pesticide called DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). While this toxin didn’t kill the eagles outright, it compromised the integrity of their egg shells, killing many eagle chicks before they had the chance to be born. The eagle population plummeted until the U.S. government banned DDT in 1973. However, other countries, like Mexico, still allow its use. Unfortunately, wind carries DDT across the man-made borders, so our bird populations are still affected.
2. Electrocution: According to researchers at Vanderbilt University, electrocution is among the top five causes of bald eagle, golden eagle and raptor deaths. These fatalities occur when the large birds land on power lines, and their wings or feet accidentally touch two lines and form a circuit. Bald eagles may also fly directly into power lines that are not visible in poor weather conditions. Both situations kill the bird instantly.
3. Lead: Most people know that it’s illegal to kill or harm a bald eagle in any way, so poaching, while still a problem, is rare. However, the hunting of other species can still kill these majestic birds. “Lead poisoning has become one of the primary causes of death for bald eagles. This poisoning occurs when the bald eagle feeds off carrion (dead animals) that have been shot with lead bullets,” explains Eagles.org. Particularly at risk are warm climates where the bald eagle likes to spend the winter, as these tend to be popular duck and waterfowl hunting grounds.
4. Habitat Destruction: Human development, particularly in coastal and mountainous areas, is another leading cause of eagle deaths. “…eagles depend on shoreline habitats and aquatic food sources, human development in these coveted areas poses the greatest threat to the bald eagle’s survival,” explains Eagles.org “In addition, the cutting of ‘old growth forests’ where bald eagles prefer to nest and perch has conflicted with the interests of people seeking lumber for housing and commercial products.”
Is Renewable Energy More Important Than Conservation?
These threats to protected birds have been known for a long time, yet you don’t see anyone dishing out $1 million fines to hunting organizations, commercial developers or customers of the electric company. The point is that we need to shift away from fossil fuels immediately. Oil and coal are finite resources, and every minute we spend addicted to them is speeding climate change, destroying habitat and threatening the survival of every species, including our own.
Instead of punishing wind farms, let’s work to find solutions that will allow turbines and birds to coexist. At least one scientist suggested that painting wind turbines another color besides white could help, in addition to keeping wind farms away from migratory zones. Also, there’s no rule that turbines have to sport three massive, bird-killing blades. Bird-safe turbine designs like this one could go along way toward minimizing fatalities.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock