Wind Turbines Being Installed in Sensitive Bird Habitat on Massive Scale

Whooping Crane by Jack Nevitt/Shutterstock
The endangered Whooping Crane is one of the many species at risk from wind energy development in sensitive habitats, such as roosting sites or migration routes.

(Washington, D.C., August 20, 2014) New research supported by American Bird Conservancy (ABC) shows that nearly 30,000 wind turbines have already been installed within areas identified as being of high importance to federally protected birds in the United States, with 50,000 more planned for construction in similar areas. These include more than 16,000 in the migration corridor of the Whooping Crane, one of the nation's rarest and most spectacular birds, 1,800 in sage-grouse breeding strongholds, and 1,400 in locations deemed to be of the most critical importance to conserving the nation's birdlife.

“Wind turbines may now be among the fastest-growing human-caused threats to our nation's birds. Attempts to manage the wind industry with voluntary as opposed to mandatory permitting guidelines are clearly not working. Wind developers are siting turbines in areas of vital importance to birds and other wildlife, and this new data shows that the current voluntary system needs radical improvement”, said Dr. Michael Hutchins, National Coordinator of ABC's Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign.

ABC supports Bird Smart wind energy development, which involves careful risk assessment leading to appropriate siting; independent, standardized post-construction monitoring of bird fatalities; mitigation using effective, tested methods; and compensation if federally protected birds and bats are killed incidentally.

The ABC analysis was based on an interactive bird wind risk assessment map that identifies specific areas across the United States where birds are likely to be particularly vulnerable to impacts from wind energy development. These include major migratory routes, breeding areas, and sensitive habitats such as wetlands. Key areas on the ABC-produced map are colored either orange or red to indicate the level of potential risk to birds, with red areas being regarded as “critically important,” the highest level of risk.  According to ABC, these red areas have extreme potential for major negative impacts on federally protected birds but comprise less than nine percent of the total U.S. land area.

“We were dismayed not only to find that the wind industry is building turbines in high bird impact areas but also in areas where the wind resources and return on taxpayer investment are marginal at best,” said Dr. George Fenwick, President of ABC. “In fact, more than 10,000 turbines are planned in or close to sensitive bird locations in areas with wind power class grades one or two, the lowest categories for profitability."

Locations of wind turbines were derived from data supplied publicly by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for proposed turbines and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for existing turbines. These data sets provide specific locations for individual wind turbines in GIS format.

The number of birds taken annually by wind energy facilities (not including associated power lines and towers) has been estimated to exceed 1.4 million birds by 2030 if there is no change in U.S. policy toward wind energy development. Because of the threat of rising bird mortality, and the explosive growth of the wind industry, ABC and a coalition of more than 70 conservation organizations recently requested that the U.S. Department of the Interior develop a National Programmatic Wind Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to identify appropriate areas for wind energy development as well as areas where development should be avoided completely to conserve federally protected birds and protect especially sensitive habitats. However, in a letter dated July 31, 2014, Interior responded that they “currently do not have the resources to undertake the nationwide process you have suggested.”

“We can and must do better if future generations of Americans are going to have a chance to see some of our nation's most iconic bird species,” said Hutchins. “Our nation's wildlife should not be collateral damage in the battle against climate change, especially when much of the conflict could be easily addressed through better siting of wind projects and improved regulation,” he added.

ABC's efforts to establish Bird Smart wind energy in the U.S. are made possible in part by the generous support of the Leon Levy Foundation.