News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Scientists Discuss Renewable Energy's Effect on Wildlife

A desert tortoise in the Mojave Desert | Photo: Phillip Adams, USGS

The first-ever North America Congress for Conservation Biology (NACCB) kicked off in Oakland this weekend, and its schedule early this week provides a concise illustration of the fact that renewable energy development and wildlife conservation can often find themselves in opposition.

The conference, sponsored by the Society for Conservation Biology, is bringing together hundreds of wildlife biologists, earth scientists, educators, activists, and journalists from across North America to discuss current issues in wildlife conservation.

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Workshops at the conference cover a wide range of renewable energy topics. A workshop slated for Tuesday, "Effects of Land-Use/Land-Cover Change on Amphibian Habitat in the Northern Great Plains," will discuss the effects on frogs, toads, and other amphibians of the burgeoning biofuels market. USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands, which have been set aside as habitat for wildlife, are increasingly being converted to cropland as a result of rising commodities prices driven by the demand for biofuels, among other things. As much as a third of the northern Great Plains' amphibian habitat is in CRP lands, and converting even a tenth of it to agricultural production could do dramatic damage to already-declining amphibian populations.

The potential effects of wind turbines on bird populations have gotten some press, but their impacts on bat populations are less-well-studied. Anecdotal information from residents of areas with wind turbine installations -- San Gorgonio Pass being one example -- suggest that bat populations drop dramatically within a short time after wind turbines are installed. The NACCB workshop "Bats and Wind Energy: State of Knowledge and Research Priorities for USFWS and USGS," also scheduled for Tuesday, will detail the results of recent studies on the topic. Scientists have found that the bats most vulnerable to wind turbine mortality are year-round tree-roosting species, suggesting that bats may mistake tall turbine towers for trees.

A Hawaiian hoary bat, often a victim of wind turbine injuries. | Photo: Frank Bonaccorso, USGS

Renewable development in the desert southwest is a hot topic, and yet another Tuesday workshop will discuss that development's effect on the desert's land animals. From thew USGS's description of the workshop, "Terrestrial Wildlife Conservation and Renewable Energy Development in the Desert Southwest United States: A Review";

USGS scientists and their colleagues reviewed the scientific literature on the effects of utility-scale energy development (wind and solar) and operation on terrestrial, non-flying wildlife. They found that while there is a growing and comparatively large body of information on the effects of wind energy on birds and bats, little information exists in the peer-reviewed scientific literature to evaluate the effects of wind or solar facilities on terrestrial wildlife in the world, including in offshore environments. Potential effects of such facilities include habitat modification and fragmentation, as well as effects from noise, dust, and roads and traffic.

Lest you get the impression that wildlife biologists are dead-set against renewable energy, the NACCB also has a number of workshops scheduled to discuss just how devastating climate change will be to the planet's non-human denizens. The conference's official mascot is the American pika, a heat-sensitive alpine rabbit relative whose mountaintop habitat shrinks with each warming increment. If North America gets much warmer, the pika's habitat may disappear. Other NACCB workshops will discuss the pikas, as well as the challenges of restoring San Francisco Bay's wetlands as sea level rises, the effects of Southern California fires on wildlife and habitat as they increase in frequency and intensity, and how to best anticipate the effects of climate change on wild California landscapes so that we can establish protected migration corridors to allow wildlife to find cooler places to live.

The NACCB, which started Sunday, runs through the 18th. You can follow the proceedings by checking out the hashtag #NACCB2012 on Twitter.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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