Wind farms are being built along whooping crane migration paths. Is there any risk to them?

Save the Eagles International (STEI), an anti-wind lobbying group, is claiming that hundreds of whooping cranes have been killed by wind farms in the past six years. Jim Wiegand, VP is promoting this theory of his as broadly as he can.  The Washington Times picked up the story and used it as part of its anti-Production Tax Credit (PTC) campaign, thankfully a failure.

How realistic is this? What is the truth behind this?  Are majestic whooping cranes actually being killed by wind farms?

http://savetheeaglesinternational.org/?page_id=895
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/aug/6/wind-energy-tax-credits-fund-bird-murder/

Short Answer:

Claims of wind farm harm to whooping cranes are complete and utter fabrication.  

  • No whooping crane has been recorded as killed by wind farms, and no one except Jim Wiegand and STEI are saying that any have been killed by wind farms.
  • While there was a large death rate of birds in 2008-2009 which is a cause for concern, Tom Stehn, the world’s leading authority on whooping cranes, attributed this in court testimony to drought caused by Texas water management practices.
  • A record number of whooping cranes were surveyed in the 2012 migration back to Texas, and the cranes have established breeding grounds outside of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
  • The US Fish and Wildlife Service, every major avian preservation organization and the wind industry are working closely together to ensure that there will be no impact on whooping cranes by wind farms.
  • The biggest threat to whooping crane populations is global warming, and wind farms directly assist with slowing global warming.

Long Answer:

Why are whooping cranes important?

Whooping cranes are an amazing success story in species preservation, having been built back up from a few dozen adults to their current stable population of several hundred.  Agricultural destruction of their habitat and hunting in the 19th century brought them to the brink of extinction. Decades of effort by hundreds of organizations, individuals and volunteers brought them back. They are barely self-sustaining at present, and cannot afford to lose additional numbers as it would put them at risk. Many have seen the documentaries about ultra-light aircraft leading flocks to breeding grounds and back again, a key part of the strategy to bring these birds back. [1]

What has been happening recently with their populations?

The largest flock and the only self-sustaining one, breeds and nests in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and migrates 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in southern Texas. [2]

In recent years, returns have been lower than anticipated, and worryingly so.  The largest reduction occurred in the drought of 2008 and 2009 with the deaths of 8.5% of the wintering flock and almost 45% of the juveniles.  A non-profit organization formed and sued the State of Texas for water management practices that caused too much salinity in marshes whooping cranes required. Cutting an interesting story short, the State of Texas lost. (I recommend reading the referenced article, as the gall of the State of Texas defence on this was astounding; they actually invented a desalination gland for whooping cranes that doesn’t exist.)

The person of note in the case was Tom Stehn, the most knowledgeable person in the world on whooping cranes, who had shepherded the Aransas flock from 40 birds to 247 birds over three decades of tirelessly working with them. If there’s a saint in this story, it’s Tom Stehn.  He knew each bird, its parents and counted them obsessively.  He traveled tens of thousands of miles surveying their territories and migration paths.  Here’s what he said the cause was:

As for the 23 Stehn was certain had died, he could identify each by territory and date. Because the deaths had occurred all across the refuge, he believed that drought was the culprit. “It was a high-mortality winter,” Stehn said, “and at that point, the food supply was not good. There were low numbers of crabs, and the wolfberry crop had not been good. And from my experience, that kind of screams out that trouble is brewing.”[3]

He’s also on record about wind farms and whooping cranes:

Stehn and others say no whooping cranes have been killed by a wind turbine, though they remain concerned.[15]

Any mortality of whooping cranes puts the species further at risk.

Although the species numbers are slowly increasing, they are far below the level required for recovery. A population viability analysis done in 2004 found that an additional 3% mortality, i.e., less than 8 individuals annually, would cause the species to undergo a decline, and preclude recovery.

That passage is from WHOOPING CRANES AND WIND DEVELOPMENT – AN ISSUE PAPER By Regions 2 and 6, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, April 2009. [4]

While a change in whooping crane counting methodology is worrisome for many including Tom Stehn, there are positive signs. The count for 2011 was 280 cranes [18] and under the new methodology which has a much larger margin of error, there are 257 whooping cranes within the bounds of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge; the actual statement is that there is a 95% probability that the count is between 178 and 362 cranes. [19]
What other threats exist for whooping crane populations?

The International Recovery Plan for the Whooping Crane [5] lists the following as current threats and reasons for listing:

human settlement/development, insufficient freshwater inflows, shooting, disturbance, disease, parasites, predation, food availability, sibling aggression, severe weather, loss of genetic diversity, climate change, red tide, chemical spills, collisions with power lines, fences, and other structures, collisions with aircraft and pesticides.

Of these, several overlap with development of wind farms, hence the action plans around this technology:

Potential negative impacts:  human development, collisions with power lines, collisions with other structures (wind turbines)

Areas wind farms are part of the solution for: insufficient freshwater inflows, severe weather, climate change

In general, wind farms are not a threat to the whooping cranes when they are flying:

Whooping cranes, the tallest birds in North America, fly at altitudes of between 500 and 5,000 feet — enough room to clear the turbines, which range in height from about 200 feet to 295 feet, and their blades, with diameters from 230 feet to 295 feet.

Landing, take-off are the issues
The problem, Stehn said, is that the cranes stop every night.
“It’s actually the landing and taking off that’s problematic,” he said. “That’s when they’re most likely to encounter the turbines and transmission towers.”[17]

The biggest threat is that the shy birds will avoid operating wind farms, leading to a loss of migration habitat necessary for their survival, as they fly only during the day and often stop and start. The second biggest threat is that whooping cranes will collide with new power lines put up to accommodate wind farms.

Avian preservation organizations are firmly in favour of wind farms as global warming and its related impacts are a much larger and harder to manage threat to avian populations than wind farms.[13]  Here’s the Audobon Society’s testimony to Congress in favour of rapid growth of wind projects.  They are clear and cautious about specific siting, but understand that wind energy helps bird populations much, much more than it harms them.

As the threats of global warming loom ever larger, alternative energy sources like wind power are essential. Many new wind power projects will need to be constructed across the country as part of any serious nationwide effort to address global warming. [14]

What is being done to ensure wind farms don’t harm whooping cranes?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, several major avian preservation organizations, wildlife biologists from several universities and the wind industry have been working on risk assessment and mitigation plans for a considerable period of time. Tom Stehn, the leading expert on whooping cranes and the person most responsible for their current comeback, worked closely with the team building the material, ensuring that the whooping cranes were protected.[12]

The approaches are building on efforts that have been ongoing for decades:

Marking of power lines to make them more visible, a technique shown to reduce sandhill crane collisions with power lines (Morkill 1990, Morkill and Anderson 1991, Brown and Drewien 1995), also helps reduce whooping crane mortality. Cooperative protection plans implemented by provincial, state, and Federal agencies are believed to have reduced losses due to shooting and disease (Lewis 1992). Forested riverine areas along the Platte River in Nebraska are being cleared to restore stopover habitat. Loss of critical winter habitat along the Gulf Intracoastal Water Way due to erosion has been reduced significantly through the use of concrete matting (Zang et al. 1993, Evans and Stehn 1997). Dredged material has been used to create winter habitat (Evans and Stehn 1997).[4]

In addition, the careful surveying of the migration corridors and assessment of threats have led to substantial changes to power line placement away from migration corridors in addition to marking them.

Wind farm siting is being assessed based on this migration corridor approach, and wind farms are mandated to watch for whooping cranes during migration season and shut down if they are spotted within a mile of the farm:

A North Dakota wind farm may have to monitor the area for whooping cranes for years to come, even though the endangered big birds haven’t been spotted since the facility began operating in 2010, federal regulators said.
The Basin Electric Power Cooperative employs biologists to watch for whooping cranes at the facility south of Minot every spring and fall when the tallest birds in America follow their usual migration route between Canada and Texas.

The Bismarck-based company is required to shut down its giant turbines if the birds come within a mile of the wind farm, according to the terms of a $250 million dollar loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. The cranes are federally protected and number only a few hundred in the wild.[6]

And:

In 2010, monitoring for cranes was done at the Titan I wind facility in South Dakota.  In the spring, a group of 5 whooping cranes spent 3 days approximately 2 miles from the project.  The closest they were ever on the ground from a turbine was 1.2 miles.  When they resumed migration, the nearest turbine was shut down in a very rapid response as the monitor called in that the cranes were flying.  The cranes passed by that turbine at a distance of about one-half mile.  In the fall, two groups of whooping cranes (2+1 and 2) flew within 0.5 and 0.3 miles from an operating turbine but did not seem to alter their flight behavior. [7]

And:

“If we see a whooping crane, we’ll start shutting down the towers as fast as we can,” said Daryl Hill, Basin Electric Power Cooperative’ssupervisor of media relations and communications. “But we’ve never had a sighting at our Minot project.” [16]

The wind industry takes whooping crane preservation very seriously.  As a whole and as individual wind developers they are holding themselves to high standards and are being held to very high standards by external monitoring organizations.

Interestingly, in Aransas National Wildlife Preserve, small windmills are creating ponds to help whooping cranes:

Alonso said recent rainfall of about 2 inches has replenished drinking water sources for the whoopers, and about 20 ponds created by windmill pumps are available for the birds to drink. [18]

Who is Jim Wiegand of STEI, and is he a credible source of information about whooping crane mortality?

Mr. Wiegand claims to be a professional wildlife biologist. Mr. Wiegand studied for an undergraduate degree in wildlife biology from the University of Berkeley about 40 years ago. There is no indication that he ever worked as a wildlife biologist in academics, government or for other organizations. He has no peer-reviewed material published. The only record Berkeley keeps online of him is an insect specimen he collected in 1973. Mr. Wiegand appears to be an antique / art seller [8], [9] and a self-taught artist of sorts [10].  Mr. Wiegand makes no claims to having ever seen a whooping crane in the wild, does not work with whooping cranes and it’s unclear if he’s ever been on the whooping crane migration path.

And, of course, he’s the Vice-President of the anti-wind lobbyist group, Save the Eagles International (STEI) [11], which appears to consist of him and the President, Mark Duchamp, who resides in Europe.

He has written two analysis pieces, one on wind turbine bird kill counting methodology and one on whooping crane mortality, which completely contradict the findings of hundreds of PhDs, professionals and credible organizations working in the field. These are published on the Save the Eagles International website and a community blog under another person’s ID. They have not been peer reviewed in any accepted manner, and have appeared in no peer reviewed publications.

He also spends large amounts of time and energy regurgitating portions of his analysis and STEI’s positions on comment boards of articles pertaining to wind farms, whether the stories have anything to do with avian mortality or not.

In his volunteer position, Mr. Wiegand makes himself available to anti-wind journalists, who tout his credentials without checking and quote him very selectively.

Selective quoting is important, as Mr. Wiegand has a constant refrain that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has engaged in a 28-year long cover-up of wind farm avian mortality, and believes that the very carefully worked out wildlife mortality counting methodologies employed at wind farms – methodologies developed and vetted by wildlife biologists, avian preservation groups and the wind industry – consistently undercount avian mortality.  He is, effectively, a conspiracy theorist, but his chosen governmental organization to fear is the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

If Mr. Wiegand can call himself a wildlife biologist, then all of those Psych majors working in call centers can call themselves Psychiatrists, and all of those guys flipping burgers who took Commerce can call themselves CEOs.

Further Mr. Wiegand has this to say:

I would take any other energy source over wind.[20]

He literally would prefer the massive pollution, habitat destruction and global warming of coal over wind energy. He is irrational on the subject.

Mr. Wiegand is not a credible source of information about wind farms and birds.

What is Jim Wiegand saying about whooping crane mortality?

In February 2012, Jim Wiegand published an article in a community blog called the Examiner, under regular anti-wind author Cathy Taibbi’s byline (Ms. Taibbi is also convinced that wind farms threaten the existence of entire avian populations despite evidence to the contrary, frequently quotes Mr. Wiegand extensively and often uses his photographs to illustrate her blog posts on the subject.) This was immediately linked to from the STEI stie, and is now regurgitated on anti-wind sites world-wide as gospel truth.

Note that this article was quickly rejected by the LA Times once they had a look at it, something Mr. Wiegand asserts is a matter of suppression of the truth by corporate interests.

It appears that someone at the top pulled the plug. I have had it happen before. You and I both know how the money works with these corporations. 

Mr. Wiegand rejects all of the evidence, all of the efforts and the sworn testimony of Tom Stehn. Instead, he claims hundreds of whooping crane have been killed over the past six years by wind turbines.  He says that whooping cranes will be extinct in 5 years due to wind farms.

He does this without any empirical evidence to support his hypothesis.  He does this despite the fact that if as many whooping cranes had died in the past years as he says there would be no whooping cranes at all right now.  He does this in direct contravention of the sworn testimony of Tom Stehn, the man who knows whooping cranes better than anyone and who worked with them directly for decades.

And when questioned on any of this, Mr. Wiegand libels Tom Stehn, attacks the US Fish and Wildlife Service and defames all involved in the process.

References:
[1] http://www.savingcranes.org/whooping-crane.html
[2] http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/aransas/whoopingcranes.html
[3] Whooping Crane Man, http://whoopingcrane.com/2012/07/
[4] WHOOPING CRANES AND WIND DEVELOPMENT – AN ISSUE PAPER By Regions 2 and 6, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
April 2009, ftp://wiley.kars.ku.edu/windresource/Whooping_Crane_and_Wind_Development_FWS_%20April%202009.pdf
[5] International Recovery Plan for the Whooping Crane, http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1047&context=endangeredspeciesbull&sei-redir=1&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2Furl%3Fsa%3Dt%26rct%3Dj%26q%3Dinternational%2520whooping%2520crane%2520recovery%2520plan%26source%3Dweb%26cd%3D1%26ved%3D0CCIQFjAA%26url%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Fdigitalcommons.unl.edu%252Fcgi%252Fviewcontent.cgi%253Farticle%253D1047%2526context%253Dendangeredspeciesbull%26ei%3DYSFGUK3fLI7bqwHTpoGACg%26usg%3DAFQjCNGvk-saxvbVoN2VCMMQJCrtnnUvkg%26sig2%3D7y4vb7KAVgdY3-p56pJg-Q#search=%22international%20whooping%20crane%20recovery%20plan%22
[6] North Dakota wind farm still watching for whooping cranes, http://www.wday.com/event/article/id/67660/
[7] Wind Farms and Whooping Cranes, http://whoopingcrane.com/wind-farms-and-whooping-cranes/
[8] http://www.jimwiegand.com
[9] Jim Wiegand’s Fine Art Prints, now apparently defunct
[10] http://www.gallery-worldwide.com/cmAuthor.jsp?id=3048&view=AUTH
[11] savetheeaglesinternational.org/
[12] http://whoopingcrane.com/wind-farms-and-whooping-cranes/
[13] How significant is bird and bat mortality due to wind turbines?
[14] http://policy.audubon.org/audubon-congressional-testimony-wind-power
[15] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23389384/ns/us_news-environment/t/wind-turbines-may-threaten-whooping-cranes/#.UEvPQEIZcuo
[16] http://www.ect.coop/efficiency-conservation/environmental-stewardship/whooping-crane-monitoring-program/47302
[17] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23389384/ns/us_news-environment/t/wind-turbines-may-threaten-whooping-cranes/#.UEytIEIZcuo
[18] http://www.scrippsnews.biz/content/record-whooping-crane-flock-expected-2nd-year-texas?page=6
[19] http://whoopingcrane.com/category/flock_status/
[20] http://www.windturbinesyndrome.com/2013/wind-power-works-great-if/?var=cna

2 comments

  1. Thank you. This is a solid representation of the whooper issues. They are causing only the companys strong of heart to venture into the corridor.

    1. Thanks Joseph. Good to meet you last week.

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