October 08, 2019
As duck hunters we know, and are constantly concerned about, weather, habitat, spring hatches, pond counts—basically anything that could derail the health of the birds we love to pursue.
Unlike whitetails or big game, our quarry migrate up and down four flyways, traversing thousands of miles and inhabiting innumerable wetlands along their journey.
This makes them vulnerable, with plenty of ways for doom and gloom to creep in. Nesting and wintering grounds are in jeopardy each season. Wetlands are drained for farming, siltatation damages rivers, CRP acreage shrinks. From 2004-09, 45,000 acres of wetlands were lost per year, according to Ducks Unlimited, much of it in the Prairie Pothole Region—vital to duck mortality. But thanks to mostly wet springs, the last decade has produced record numbers of waterfowl.
But there are other man-made variables that may be impacting ducks, wind energy being among them. Wind farms, which are popping up all over the U.S. and Canada, are altering flight corridors and waterfowl habitat. To what extent, we don’t yet know. The footprint of wind turbines continues to grow (wind may supply 20 percent of the world’s energy by 2030). So, we asked some of the foremost authorities on wind energy’s effects on animal species—and hunters who have pursued waterfowl in areas where turbines have become prevalent—what they think of this renewable resource.
There are all kinds of statistics available on the number of birds (not just waterfowl) killed by wind turbines each year. Estimates span the spectrum from 100,000 into the millions. There’s no possible way to determine how many ducks or geese, or meadowlarks for the that matter, die due to turbine strikes. And the turbine companies don’t release much, if any, information on this issue. (WILDFOWL reached out to a turbine manufacturer for comment on bird strikes multiple times, but never received an answer.)
“It’s almost impossible to track the level of bird deaths,” said Brian Rutledge of the National Audubon Society, who has extensively studied the turbines intrusion on sage grouse habitat. “Foxes and coyotes have learned to eat the dead pretty quickly. Our wildlife deaths have become proprietary information. For some reason, if I killed your dog, it’s your business, but if a wind turbine kills a bat, it’s [the wind company's] business.”
Don't Have to Hit to Kill
One of the most challenging aspects of understanding wind turbine technology is the lack of hard data on any side effects of wind energy to waterfowl flyways and populations. Is it permanently displacing them? How many birds are dying from blade strikes? We simply don’t know yet. What is known: These are 400- to 500-foot structures that can turn at 300 mph, powerful enough that if a bat flies through the down-wash of a blade its organs can be sucked out of its body, according to Rutledge.
“I think waterfowl hunters have a powerful role to play in shaping conservation policies, and I would guess that many of them don’t know much about wind turbines or the potential they have to affect ducks and geese,” said John Gale, conservation director at Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “A lot of them don’t have a place to go to get any information on the impacts of green energy, and they might not even know about wind turbines if they have never hunted near one.”
Almost 10 years ago, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, along with DU and DU Canada studied breeding pairs of mallards, pintails, blue-winged teal, gadwall and Northern shovelers in areas of the Dakotas with wind turbines. USFWS biologist Dr. Chuck Loesch and his team discovered ducks utilizing wetlands around wind farms were 20 percent lower than in areas void of turbines, and on one site, the breeding pair density was 56 percent lower than a similar nesting area with no turbines. Another study published in 2018 by The Wildlife Society revealed redheads use of freshwater ponds on the Texas coast decreased by 77 percent once a 267-turbine wind farm was erected on the western coast of the Laguna Madre.
“I don’t think we want to put a massive wind farm in the middle of the central flyway near a major waterfowl stop over,” Gale said. “We know sage grouse and pronghorn don’t like the overhead disturbance they cause. It’s common sense.”
From the Field
Many of these turbines are being placed on public lands or on a public/private land system known as checkerboarding. This allows the turbines to be erected on state or federal property alongside a private ranch or farm. It also allows the land owner to put a fence around the public areas “to keep people from trespassing.”
Wind farms are being placed in undeveloped areas of the west that include flight corridors for waterfowl and near vital habitat, like Wisconsin’s historic Horicon Marsh and Baffin Bay in Texas, close to the Laguna Madre.
“I want renewable energy, but the turbines are not the only viable alternative,” Rutledge said. “They are doing damage to wildlife and our ability to use public lands. I think we should be putting them on old gas fields that were never reclaimed or current agriculture development…and stay off our pristine wild lands.”
Drew Palmer is a duck guide from the Flint Hills of Kansas. He chases mallards and lesser Canada geese and has seen first-hand what a wind farm can do to waterfowl habits. He used to hunt milo fields south of Wichita that greenheads and geese fed in, but that is no longer the case.
“It changed the ducks,” Palmer said of the turbines. “I had access to fields and cattle ponds and once they put up the wind farms near South Haven, the birds stopped coming there. I don’t think the geese care as much. They will fly over them. But the ducks won’t go within two or three miles of them.”
Further down the central flyway is Dusty Brown, who has guided across North America, but his bread and butter for the last two decades has been West Texas lessers and sandhill cranes. Twenty years ago, there were few, if any, turbines in Floyd and Lynn Counties where he hunts, but many wind farms have been built since then.
“The biggest impact was it changed where birds roost,” Brown said. “(The turbines) moved the cranes and geese out of the playa lakes, and it changed the historical routes they flew. They haven’t left the area, but now they hit a wall and won’t cross the freeway.”