Alternative energy and wildlife conservation are at crosspurposes once again.
A windenergy project capable of producing 250,000 megawatt hours of electricity annually is in the works in northeastern North Carolina. Unfortunately, it would be built in an Important Bird Area (IBA) and in the path of thousands of tundra swans and other migratory waterfowl that overwinter at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
Pantego Wind Energy Inc. plans to install 49 wind turbines on a site two miles from Pocosin Lakes Refuge and 15 miles from Mattamuskeet Refuge. The company has applied for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the N.C. Utilities Commission, which held hearings late last year, one of a limited number of opportunities for public review/comment.
In a Dec. 6, 2011, letter to the commission, Pocosin Lakes Refuge manager Howard Phillips recommended delaying its decision while the turbines likely impact on the swans can be studied. An average of 25,000 tundra swans roost at the refuge each winter and fly out to forage in surrounding fields.
Important Bird Area
The Audubon Society has designated about 60 percent of the Pantego site as an IBA, which calls into question its suitability for a wind project, Phillips says. His chief concerns are habitat loss if swans are scared away by the turbines and direct mortality if they arent.
If the birds were suddenly to lose that patch of forage, would it have a devastating impact on the bird population? Probably not, Phillips says. But it would be yet another incremental loss. Death by a thousand cuts is the sort of thing Im concerned about. At some point, well hit a threshold, and the next loss will cause a reduction in the population.
If swans dont avoid the site, they could be struck, Phillips says. A turbine blade can turn in excess of 100 mph, and tundra swanswhich can weigh 23 pounds with 5½foot wingspansare large, notverymaneuverable birds. If the birds fly in the same airspace as the turbines, especially at night (and we know they do fly at night), theres a good chance of direct mortality.
Whether enough swans would be killed to affect the population isnt clear. The bottom line, Phillips says, is that the research isnt there yet. Theres some evidence that the impact of turbines is speciesspecific: They have a big impact on some species, not on others. We dont know how tundra swans will react. All we can say is: Knowing what we know about these birds, we think its likely that this project will have a detrimental impact on the migratory bird resources were managing at the refuge.
Phillips says the studies should span several years, in part because farmers rotate crops. If you put a turbine down in a soybean field this year, it may not interfere much with the birds, which prefer corn, winter wheat and other grains. But next year, when theres corn under that turbine, youll probably get a different result.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar strongly supports the development of alternative energy sources, including wind, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has drafted guidelines to help companies develop them in the right places, Phillips says. The guidelines say IBAs are inappropriate for wind facilitiesbut the guidelines are voluntary.
The Service has no enforcement authority under either the guidelines or the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits the take of the birds but doesnt prohibit the construction of a facility where birds are likely to be taken, Phillips says. If birds are killed, however, the treaty allows the Service to investigate and refer any taking for prosecution.
Before it comes to that, though, Phillips recommends more deliberation: These types of projects, especially in waterfowl concentration areas, are just so new that we simply dont know how extensive the impacts on waterfowl might be.
Alison Howard is a Virginiabased freelance writer and editor.