Wind Farms and Whooping Cranes

The development of wind farms is occurring at a rapid pace in the Central Flyway with many of the best wind sites located in the whooping crane migration corridor. Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) advised the Whooping Crane Conservation Association (WCCA) that multiple wind farms have already been built with more planned. Stehn stated, “It is important to analyze the potential impact of literally tens of thousands of wind turbines that may be placed in the whooping crane migration corridor in the coming years.      

Current estimates are that 2,705 turbines are operational at 40 wind farms in the U. S. whooping crane migration corridor.  The average wind development project consists of 57 turbines (data generated by the Great Plains Wind Energy Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) in March, 2011).      

The majority of wind farms do not require federal permits and thus there is no nexus for the companies to consult with USFWS under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, the projects must avoid “take” of endangered species under Section 9 of the ESA. USFWS’ Stehn advised that: “For the totality of wind energy development, there is a very definite issue of “take”.  Wind farms have the potential to directly kill whooping cranes from the turbines themselves or associated power line development, or could result in “take” of hundreds of square miles of migration stopover habitat if whooping cranes tend to avoid wind farms.”  The National Academy of Science Report in 2004 on Platte River endangered species confirmed unequivocally the threat to whooping cranes if migration habitat is lost.      

Early on in discussions with wind companies, USFWS talked of two possible scenarios for offsetting anticipated impacts of wind farms.  These were to set aside whooping crane migration stopover habitat in perpetuity to counter potential loss of habitat from wind farm construction, as well as to mark new power lines, as well as some existing power lines to offset the threat of whooping cranes colliding with a wind turbine or power lines built to support wind development.      

According to Stehn: “At the urging of USFWS at meetings held in Denver and Houston as well as regular conference calls, 19 of the largest wind development companies joined together to work on endangered species issues throughout the whooping crane migration corridor in the U.S.  With the support of the State of Oklahoma, the industry group received a grant of $1,080,990 to develop a landscape level, multi-species HCP that would include the lesser prairie chicken.  The grant was awarded through the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund under the HCP Planning Assistance Program. The HCP will be designed to avoid and minimize impacts to endangered and threatened species associated with wind energy development.”        

This multi-species HCP will be the first of its kind to involve alternative fuel sources while protecting endangered species.  In a meeting in Tulsa, Oklahoma in November, 2010, four species were added to the HCP (Sprague’s pipit, mountain plover, piping plover and interior least tern), joining the whooping crane and lesser prairie chicken.  An additional meeting was held in March, 2011 in Albuquerque.  It does appear that this industry group will agree to have the wintering grounds of the whooping cranes as off- limits to wind energy development.  However, projects in the migration corridor are currently being built and are not waiting for this HCP to be completed.      

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.       

Research on sandhill cranes in west Texas done by Laura Navarrete of Texas Tech University documented two observed instances of cranes being killed by wind turbine blades.  Although sandhill cranes definitely avoided wind farms, she also observed accommodation with cranes foraging right at the base of turbines.  Research done by U.S. Geological Survey at Horicon NWR in Wisconsin also showed some avoidance by sandhill cranes from wind farms.

WCCA article based on communications with Tom Stehn, USFWS

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