Massive Huron County, Michigan Wind Development Planned for Key Migratory Bird Corridor

Short-eared Owl by Ashok Khosla
The Short-eared Owl, a species listed as endangered in Michigan, is one of many birds using the area in Huron County slated for major wind energy expansion.

(Washington, D.C., November 5, 2014) American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has raised serious concerns about a plan by Heritage Sustainable Energy, DTE Energy, Exelon Corporation, and NextEra Energy to construct additional commercial wind turbines in Huron County, Michigan, which could eventually result in up to 900 turbines in the area. This plan is advancing despite the fact that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) radar studies show vast numbers of birds migrating through or wintering in this area.

In an October 30 letter to the FWS Regional Director, ABC charged that the proposed expanded wind development—which already includes 328 turbines—threatens a major confluence of neotropical migratory birds and raptors, including federally protected Bald and Golden Eagles.

“Many species that are threatened or endangered in the U.S. and within the state of Michigan, such as the Piping Plover, Kirtland's Warbler, Henslow's Sparrow, and Short-eared Owl, migrate through or inhabit this area. This triggers serious Endangered Species Act (ESA) concerns,” said ABC's Dr. Michael Hutchins, National Coordinator, Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign.

“We have reviewed the recent radar studies conducted by FWS in this area and must conclude that Huron County is not an appropriate area for wind energy development, given the potential and substantial risks it poses to federally protected birds. If this is an example of 'proper' siting of wind energy development, then we wonder what criteria are being used to make such decisions,” Hutchins said further.

“An annual spring migration of thousands of eagles, hawks, and falcons travel through this area and congregate along the Huron County shoreline,” said Monica Essenmacher, President of Port Crescent Hawk Watch, a raptor conservation group in Michigan. “We have documented this occurrence since 1992, so there is a high likelihood of major raptor mortality from continued construction of these turbines.”

The ABC letter says that in addition to ESA-protected birds, vast numbers of other migrants also move through or breed in these areas. Although there is no current provision for a federal permit to harm or kill these birds (called a “take permit”) under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), ABC suggests that the FWS should consider this option as soon as possible, so that it can be used as an additional tool for proper siting and operation of future wind energy facilities.

Under FWS' current voluntary permitting guidelines, wind energy companies are not required to apply for incidental take permits under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act or the ESA when the project sits on private property. ABC asserts that this is a loophole allowing wind developers to kill federally protected birds with impunity. To remedy this, the organization is calling for independent post-construction monitoring and for the institution of a permit process that imposes fines to developers who kill more protected birds than their permit would allow.

ABC supports the development of clean, renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar power, but also believes that it must be done responsibly and with minimal impact on our public trust resources, including native birds and bats and particularly threatened, endangered, and other protected species. ABC supports Bird Smart Wind Energy, which emphasizes the importance of careful siting and mitigation to prevent unintended impacts to wildlife. As this study suggests, the risk to birds and bats can be substantial, depending on the circumstances. Another study suggests even higher mortality.

Developers typically argue that they can effectively mitigate the impacts of wind development, but ABC—and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)—caution that most forms of mitigation touted by the wind industry have not yet been scientifically tested for their efficacy. ABC strongly agrees with the DOE's recent statement that “…technologies to minimize impacts at operational facilities for most species are either in early stages of development or simply do not exist.”

Regarding the Huron County wind energy expansion, ABC has requested that an Environmental Impact Statement be prepared for the project and says that “… the voluntary (FWS) guidelines (must) be followed to the letter, which means consultation under Section 7 of the ESA, applications for incidental take permits under the ESA and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, a three-mile setback from any shoreline, and an Avian Protection Plan … before the companies are allowed to go ahead with any construction.”

ABC also asks that the wind energy companies share bird mortality data with the public. “At present, these data are being treated as proprietary information, but these are public trust resources being taken,” said Hutchins. “The public has a right to know.”