By STEW MAGNUSON
|Whooping cranes. Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service|
Who in the Sand Hills hasn’t heard the otherworldly sound of a flock of cranes as they slowly make their way south in the fall? Shading one’s eyes and looking up, one can see the silhouettes of the Sandhill cranes as they use the thermal drafts and southerly winds to migrate through Nebraska.
This may be a sight the people of Cherry, Thomas and Logan Counties will only be able to tell their grandchildren about if the plan moves forward to populate the region with wind turbines.
A careful reading of two government-funded reports on the effects of wind turbines placed in the paths of North America’s two crane species—the sandhill crane and the endangered whooping crane—spells out the possible fate of these birds in the counties along Highway 83.
The first, a 2009 report produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, describes the dangers to the delicate whooping crane population, which at last count in February 2015 numbered only 442 wild birds.
“The principal known cause of loss [of whooping cranes] during migration is collision with utility lines … Additional power line construction throughout the principal migration corridor will increase the potential for collision mortalities,” the report said.
“Based on the known threat of wind turbines to other migratory birds, and to their large body size and low maneuverability, it is reasonable to expect that whooping cranes could be killed by turbine blades, given the number of existing and proposed wind turbines within the … migration corridor,” the report said.
Cranes fly at about 1,000 to 6,000 feet so at first glance, there seems to be little risk for collision until one takes into account the many different scenarios where mortality can occur: when they are ascending and descending, when they occasionally fly at night, in poor weather and when searching for wetlands to rest. (Wetlands are found throughout Cherry County.)
Further, there was some evidence in the 2009 report that the birds may adjust to the existence of wind farms. In other words, they will begin to fly miles out of the way to avoid the towers. They then end up in stopover areas that they do not normally use. That puts them at risk of exhaustion, predators and so on.
The sandhill crane was used in this report as a stand-in species because of the whooping cranes’ small numbers.
Six years after this report, another produced this year by the U.S. Geological Survey said there was further research backing up this behavior.
|Wind farm south of Minot, ND along Highway 83. By Stew Magnuson|
That report, “Wintering Sandhill Crane exposure to wind energy development in the central and southern Great Plains, USA,” at first glance seemed to be good news to windmill proponents, as it found only a 6 percent overlap between the more common cranes and wind farms. That is until you drilled down and got beyond the headline. The future is much less certain.
Six years of research since the 2009 report found more evidence that cranes may begin to take different paths miles out of their normal routes to avoid turbine blades, the report said. This should be alarming to the people of Kearney and Grand Island. UNL's Bureau of Business Research in a report this spring found that the bird watchers who come to the Platte River valley to see the annual migrations in spring and fall contribute $10.33 million yearly into the state’s economy. One wonders how these legions of birders will feel about the State of Nebraska when the first report of a flock of sandhill cranes is found dead underneath a wind turbine — or even more horrifying, whooping cranes. Can anyone claim it will never happen?
Yes six percent doesn’t seem like a lot, but the Geological Survey report only studied existing wind farms. The placing of windmills as far as the eye can see in the Sand Hills was not included in this report.
“A continuation of this seeming compatibility of wintering cranes and wind energy development will depend upon the placement of future towers in locations not highly preferred by cranes,” the U.S. Geological Survey report clearly said.
Here are some other points from the 2009 Fish and Wildlife study.
“Wind farms should not be built near traditional whooping crane stopover locations, and should be placed as far away from the centerline of the whooping crane migration corridor as feasible. Wind farms should not be constructed in areas within a wetland mosaic suitable for whooping cranes to use,” it stated.
Let me spell it out for those who are not from the area: Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.
I keep staring at the maps I’m finding online that tracked GPS-banded whooping cranes and their migration routes and wondering how these projects can go forward. And in Custer County? That’s even closer to the paths.
And here is something for those investing in these projects to chew on.
“If a whooping crane were to be killed by a wind turbine, [Fish & Wildlife] could request that the wind farm cease operations during all or portions of the spring and fall whooping crane migration periods.”
It continued: “Companies should factor in the scenario of a possible required cessation of operations when selecting a wind farm site.”
The arguments I’ve heard from windmill proponents that housecats kill millions of birds is irrelevant and sad. Besides, I’d like to see the house cat that can take down North America’s tallest birds. Unfortunately, cranes are no match for these windmill monstrosities.
The issue of wind farms in the Nebraska Sand Hills has not yet gone beyond “Not in My Backyard,” or NIMBYism. But it’s time that the citizens downstate and the millions of birders around the world understand what may be in store for these magnificent creatures if these projects go forward.
Stew Magnuson is a proud Nebraskan residing in Arlington, Virginia, whose family roots are in the Sand Hills. He is the author of two editions of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83. His book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, past winner of the Nebraska nonfiction book of the year award, was recently named one of the state's 150 most important literary works. Contact him at stewmag (a) yahoo.com