Death Data: Why Tracking Dead Wildlife at Renewable Energy Sites is Important

Say's phoebe | Photo: kevincole/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In May 2011, a Say's phoebe -- a small songbird -- was found dead in an oil waste lagoon in the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. Say's phoebes are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA), and within weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had hauled Continental Resources, the owner of that lagoon, into court over that single dead phoebe.

In August 2013, a single dead Say's phoebe was found at the Genesis Solar Energy Project, now being built in the California desert in Riverside County. That bird was one of at least 61 birds whose bodies were recovered at that facility in August.

And yet the chances are extremely slim that the USFWS will take legal action against the owner of the Genesis Solar Energy Project the same way it did against Continental Resources. The agency is temporarily out of service with the federal shutdown, but before Congress shut down agencies that had been protecting our safety and that of our wildlife, USFWS had in effect refused to enforce several wildlife protection laws against renewable energy companies, even as those companies' threats to wildlife have mounted.

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We face an unprecedented threat to the environment from fossil fuel use, and with each new climate science study the prospect gets worse. We absolutely have to move our global society away from using coal and gas and oil as energy sources.

With such a severe problem facing us, it's tempting to de-emphasize wildlife protection laws in order to get a renewable energy generating infrastructure up and running. We've certainly heard opinion to that effect here at ReWire.

That de-emphasis has been adopted by some of the agencies charged with evaluating the harm new renewable energy generating projects might do not just to wildlife, but to cultural sites and other important aspects of our common heritage. The California Energy Commission, for instance, routinely approves renewable energy projects it admits will do significant harm to the environment, to archaeological and paleontological sites, based on the "overriding consideration" of the state's campaign to get off coal, oil, and gas.

This lack of focus on wildlife is taking place in the context of dwindling concern for wildlife in both government agencies and large environmental organizations, and that's one of the reasons KCET is launching a blog focused in California wildlife issues next week. (Stay tuned.) But the specific problem here is that we're talking about unprecedentedly massive changes in both technology and habitat. NextEra Energy Resources' Genesis Solar Project, the site of those 61 dead birds recovered in August, is just one 1,950-acre project in a region targeted for extensive solar development. Between Genesis and the nearby Blythe and McCoy Solar Energy Projects, the Palen Solar Electric generating System, Desert Harvest, Desert Sunlight, and the Rice Solar Energy Project, all of them either under construction or in the planning and financing phases, almost 19,000 acres of land will be developed as solar power generating facilities.

That's just under 30 square miles of changed habitat just in eastern Riverside County, with the federal government officially promoting more where that came from in the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone.

There's no particular reason to suspect that Genesis is inherently less safe for birds than any of its solar neighbors, so extrapolating from Genesis' August count, if all those above-mentioned projects are built out, we could expect that a month like August would mean almost 600 such deaths across that 30 square miles of solar generating capacity. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act provides for fines of up to $2,000 and two years in prison for a single death of a bird the law protects. And unlike its powers under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, USFWS can't issue "take permits" for birds protected under the MBTA.

The MBTA's extent is controversial. Under some interpretations you've violated it if a mourning dove crashes into your kitchen window pane and dies, or if your outdoor cat brings home a dead warbler. There's no way USFWS could enforce the law, in its broadest interpretation, against every single violator. But the fact remains: the agency prosecuted an oil company for one dead Say's phoebe and is turning a blind eye to dozens of admitted kills at solar facilities of birds protected under the MBTA.

In fact, we're not even keeping track of the death toll. In our report on the Genesis bird mortalities in August, we noted that all the birds were found by staff performing other duties. Regular mortality surveys would provide a much better sense of what kind of toll a project takes on the local wildlife, but energy companies resist conducting such surveys, and the USFWS doesn't require they take place.

This insufficient attention to surveying for mortalities and injuries is especially a problem with wind development: not only are most searches for injured wildlife done on a voluntary basis (the Altamont Pass Wind Area being an exception), but companies are only expected to search within about 50 yards of the wind turbine towers, and most companies will strongly resist searching all their towers rather than twenty percent or so. Turbine blade tips can move at speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour, and birds may glide for some distance after being struck. Keeping mortality surveys within 50 yards of wind turbine towers is thus about as effective as staying in the infield to field a home run.

Far more accurate mortality counts are possible: they just require trained labor. That costs money, and the results might threaten a company's clean green reputation if it's killing too many birds, so it's unrealistic to expect project owners to do accurate surveys without incentive.

The prospect of prosecution for violating laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act could provide that incentive, if USFWS had the institutional will to use the legal authority we've granted it.

In the meantime, we are building thousands of acres of what amount to experimental technology across the landscape, and yet we aren't collecting the data any good scientist would tell you is crucial to forecasting what that technology's long-term effects will be. And they could be considerable. During migration season in the desert, as many as 7,000 birds an hour have been tracked in each mile of desert sky. Our current plan is to give them a gauntlet of mirrors, reflective PV panels, solar flux and wind turbines to go through along the way. The California desert might well play host to the 21st Century's equivalent of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, all so that we can leave our AC at 65 degrees without guilt.

From time to time, in response to our wildlife reporting here at ReWire, we hear from readers that "such mortalities are a shame, but coal and oil are worse." But we just don't have the data we need to reach that conclusion. Fossil fuels certainly cause a lot of harm to wildlife, from oil spills to mountaintop removal to the first inklings we now see of climate change. That's not in question, and we need to wean our global society from those energy sources as soon as we can.

But we just cannot say with any certainty that utility-scale solar and wind are safer for wildlife than coal and oil. They might be, but we don't have the data. We don't have the data because the main federal agency charged with protecting wildlife from industrial activity isn't doing its job.

If the scuttlebutt ReWire has heard from other federal agencies is true, that's very likely due to direct political intervention from the upper echelons of Interior and the Obama administration. We've talked to Congressional aides in the past who've told us the expectation is that big renewables companies are saving the world, and that obeying wildlife protection laws is an unnecessary obstacle for them.

Which makes about as much sense as claiming that people who use hybrid and electric cars and bicycles rather than standard gasoline-powered SUVs shouldn't have to stop at red lights because they're saving the planet too.

No large-scale energy source is without risk to wildlife. We need to phase out our fossil fuel habit. But it's irresponsible to turn our back on harm done to wildlife by renewable energy generation. If for no other reason, we need to study these new plants' impacts honestly and carefully to find ways of making the next generation of solar technology less dangerous.

And we can't do that honestly unless the USFWS starts treating wildlife kills at solar plants and wind facilities as seriously as they do at oil wells and power lines.

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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