Six birds found dead recently in Southern California’s Tehachapi Mountains were majestic golden eagles. But some bird watchers say that in an area where dozens of wind turbines slice the air they were also sitting ducks.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating to determine what killed the big raptors, and declined to divulge the conditions of the remains. But the likely cause of death is no mystery to wildlife biologists who say they were probably clipped by the blades of some of the 80 wind turbines at the three-year-old Pine Tree Wind Farm Project, operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
As the Obama administration pushes to develop enough wind power to provide 20 percent of America’s energy by 2030, some bird advocates worry that the grim discovery of the eagles this month will be a far more common occurrence.
Windmills kill nearly half a million birds a year, according to a Fish and Wildlife estimate. The American Bird Conservancy projected that the number could more than double in 20 years if the administration realizes its goal for wind power.
The American Wind Energy Association, which represents the industry, disputes the conservancy’s projection, and also the current Fish and Wildlife count, saying the current bird kill is about 150,000 annually.
Over nearly 30 years, none of the nation’s 500 wind farms, where 35,000 wind turbines operate mostly on private land, have been prosecuted for killing birds, although long-standing laws protect eagles and a host of migrating birds.
If the ongoing investigation by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement division results in a prosecution at Pine Tree, it will be a first. The conservancy wants stronger regulations and penalties for the wind industry, but the government has so far responded only with voluntary guidelines.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s voluntary,” said Robert Johns, a spokesman for the conservancy. “If you had voluntary guidelines for taxes, would you pay them?”
The government should provide more oversight and force operators of wind turbines to select sites where birds don’t often fly or hunt, the conservancy says. It also wants the wind industry to upgrade to energy-efficient turbines with blades that spin slower.
The lack of hard rules has caused some at the conservancy to speculate that federal authorities have decided that the killing of birds — including bald and golden eagles — is a price they are willing to pay to lower the nation’s carbon footprint with cleaner wind energy.
But federal officials, other wildlife groups and a wind-farm industry representative said the conservancy’s views are extreme. Wind farms currently kill far fewer birds than the estimated 100 million that fly into glass buildings, or up to 500 million killed yearly by cats. Power lines kill an estimated 10 million, and nearly 11 million are hit by automobiles, according to studies.
“The reality is that everything we do as human beings has an impact on the natural environment,” said John Anderson, director of siting policy for the wind-energy association.
Another reality is that some wind farms are far more deadly to birds and wildlife than others. One of the nation’s largest wind farms, the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area near Livermore, Calif., has killed an average of nearly 2,000 raptors annually, including more than 500 eagles, over four years, according to federal agencies and bird watchers.
Developers in the early 1980s placed the farm’s 5,000 turbines in an area where several species of raptors hunt. The blades of the early model turbines spin faster to generate power. Critics say it was a blender that cut down birds as they focused on prey.
NextEra Energy Resources, which operates the farm, resisted demands to upgrade and relocate equipment for years until its opponents seemed to be on the verge of prevailing in court. It recently settled a lawsuit filed by the Marin Audubon Society and other interest groups and is now making changes that officials say other operators should notice. They include retrofitting and replacing fast-moving turbines with new turbines that generate energy more efficiently with slower-moving blades.
Anderson defended Altamont, saying it was built at a time when developers were ignorant about siting and animal habitats. Wind farms get more publicity than other things that cause bird deaths because the birds die where they’re struck, Anderson said.
Cars hit them and drive away. And birds fly away from mountaintop mining operations that create conditions that can lead to their demise.
A Fish and Wildlife Service official said that there’s no doubt that birds will continue to be killed by wind turbines as they proliferate on land and water, but the trick is to work with the industry to decrease the number of deaths.
The Interior Department convened a Federal Advisory Committee on wind farms three years ago as a first step in that process. In March 2010, the 22 members from government agencies, a few advocacy groups and the industry and their lawyers came up with a set of recommendations.
The Fish and Wildlife Service took the recommendations and spent a year creating guidelines. A draft presented in February called on wind-farm developers to consult with the agency before deciding on sites, and to make significant changes if animal habitats are greatly disturbed.
The industry viewed the changes as onerous, Anderson said.
“Under the guidelines, it would be harder to get loans without proving compliance with the guidelines, and with approval from Fish and Wildlife,” Anderson said. “State agencies also had a role. In those instances a state could say, ‘Have you complied with Fish and Wildlife guidelines?’ It was really bad for us.”
When Fish and Wildlife revised the guidelines to address the industry’s concerns, the conservancy claimed that the agency had capitulated by watering down the strong oversight role it would play in protecting wildlife by deciding where to place turbines.
“The professional scientists at Fish and Wildlife got rolled over,” Johns said.
But Dan Ashe, the director of Fish and Wildlife, said voluntary guidelines and cooperation are the way forward. It “will help conserve birds and bats, and ensure responsible development of our wind-energy resources.”
Others agreed. Regulations that would excuse operators from protecting non-endangered species like bats, and protecting all wildlife “is an important step,” said Aimee Delach, a senior policy analyst for Defenders of Wildlife and a member of the committee.
As for the conservancy’s concern that the industry might not comply, “The threat of prosecution does remain,” Delach said.
“We’re not against wind power,” said Johns of the conservancy. “It’s clean and it’s better than blowing the tops off mountains. But we are not willing to overlook the problems that come with it. If you’re going to do it, do it right so that you don’t have to look up one day and say, ‘Hey, we’ve killed all the birds.’ ”