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Mixed News for Birds, Wind Farms, and Buildings

By Erin Weaver

This article originally appeared on BuildingGreen.com.

April 30, 2012
This map illustrates the four major migration flyways of North America; developers are hard-pressed to site wind projects in areas with little effect on birds.
Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
This map illustrates the four major migration flyways of North America; developers are hard-pressed to site wind projects in areas with little effect on birds.

For groups watching for the safety of birds in an environment fraught with hazards such as wind turbines and tall buildings, there’s been a lot of news to digest lately.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimates that 440,000 birds are killed in collisions with wind turbines each year; without stronger regulation, says the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), the annual toll will exceed one million by 2030. To address this issue, the U.S. Department of the Interior has released voluntary guidelines to help developers minimize the impact of wind energy projects on bird habitat and migration. Developed over five years with an advisory committee that included government agencies, the wind energy industry, and some conservation organizations, the guidelines are intended to ensure compliance with federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act—although the rules allowing them to do so are controversial.

Currently, if a project impacts an endangered species the developer may apply for a five-year Incidental Take Permit, which allows some harm to listed species if the applicant has developed a Habitat Conservation Plan. FWS has proposed extending the permit period to 30 years, which ABC points out is a significant departure from previous FWS conclusions that too many factors can change over such a long period of time. The National Audubon Society, represented on the committee, is among conservation organizations supporting the new guidelines; Audubon CEO David Yarnold argues, “Conservationists can’t have it both ways: we can’t say we need renewable energy and then say there’s nowhere safe to put the wind farms.” Others say a voluntary system is not enough; ABC’s petition for a stricter, mandatory permitting system was recently rejected by FWS.

 Meanwhile, a new study in the Journal of Applied Ecology suggests that many bird species can coexist with wind farms, but the construction phase may be more damaging than previously thought. Looking at impacts on 10 key bird species at 18 of the U.K.’s 300 wind farms, the study found that some species thrived in the open landscape created during construction, and many showed little or no change. However, curlew numbers fell 40 percent around construction areas and remained low, the birds having abandoned nesting sites. Snipe numbers fell by more than half; red grouse fell but recovered after construction, suggesting that some species can habituate to the presence of operating turbines. The authors acknowledge more long-term data is needed.

In related news, the second trial of a building owner over bird collisions has begun in Toronto. Canadian nonprofit Ecojustice has filed charges against Cadillac Fairview Corporation, alleging that its buildings violate Canada’s Species at Risk Act. In 2010 over 800 bird corpses, including threatened species, were counted at the company’s Yonge Corporate Centre complex, whose mirror-like glass may confuse birds by reflecting trees and sky. A verdict is pending in Ecojustice’s previous litigation, which charged the owners of Toronto’s Consilium Place complex with discharging a contaminant—reflected light—known to cause harm to animals.

Copyright 2012 by BuildingGreen Inc.

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