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Minnesota Wind Facilities Responsible for Hundreds of Bird and Bat Fatalities to Start 2020

The start of 2020 hasn’t been good for anyone.

No more so for the birds flocking around Minnesota wind farms.

Based on documents filed to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), Minnesota wind facilities are responsible for at least 330 wildlife fatalities in 2020. These fatalities span 42 different species, six of which are listed in Minnesota’s Wildlife Action Plan as Species in Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) including two that are Species of Special Concern (SPC).

However, this certainly is not a total estimate of the number of wildlife fatalities caused by wind farms in Minnesota.

Bird and bat fatality monitoring is required only at a handful larger wind farms in the state. These 330 fatalities only account for four wind farms altogether – two of which are owned by Xcel Energy. One event at Xcel’s Lake Benton Wind Farm II resulted in the discovery of over 180 birds and bats in a three-day period from April 22 to April 24.

That comes out to nearly two deaths per day across four farms. Extrapolate those numbers for the rest of Minnesota’s 134 wind farms, and fatalities start to reach the tens of thousands. While that may not be the best way to estimate the number of bird and bat deaths caused by wind farms, it gives you some idea of the problem facing Minnesota’s wind farm presence for birds and bats in the state.

The facilities include Blazing Star Wind Farm 1, Lake Benton Wind Farm II, Palmer’s Creek Wind Farm, and Big Blue Wind Farm.

The site permit for Xcel’s Blazing Star notes that the “permittee” must notify U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources within 24 hours in the event that one of the following occurs:

(a) Five or more dead or injured birds within a five day reporting period;

(b) One or more dead or injured state threatened, endangered, or species of special concern;

(c) One or more dead or injured federally listed species, including species proposed for listing; or

(d) One or more dead or injured bald or golden eagle(s).

In the event that one of the four discoveries listed above should be made, the Permittee must file with the Commission within seven days, a compliance report identifying the details of what was discovered, the turbine where the discovery was made, a detailed log of agencies and individuals contacted, and current plans being undertaken to address the issue.

So far, the list of fatalities in the documents I’ve come across include four Big Brown Bats, a Species of Special Concern (SPC) in Minnesota, sixteen Silver-haired Bats, a Species in Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), one Virginia Rail (SGCN), one Short-eared Owl (SPC), 55 Swamp Sparrows, 35 Song Sparrows, and a list of other species including woodpeckers, hawks, and crows.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that anywhere between 140,000 and 500,000 birds and bats are killed by wind turbines across the country each year. Unfortunately, these figures are based on data from 2013. Since that time, wind generation in the U.S. has grown by 79 percent, suggesting that these numbers are out of date and have been for some time.

If fatality numbers followed a similar trend as wind generation, the total looks more like anywhere from 250,000 to 900,000. If fatalities follow the trend of other studies showing approximately 20 deaths per turbine, then the over 83,000 wind turbines in America are responsible for closer to 1.7 million bird and bat deaths per year.

What’s clear is that the lack of bird and bat fatality monitoring at wind farms in the country makes it impossible to know for sure how many birds and bats are killed by collisions with wind turbines annually. Considering the variability of fatalities at the wind turbines that have been documented across the country, the accuracy of any estimate is up in the air.

Still, whatever the number is, it seems likely to be lower than other causes of death for birds and bats in the country. Building windows are said to account for nearly 1 billion annual bird deaths, power lines are responsible for anywhere from 8 to 57 million, and cats are said to kill in the hundreds of millions, perhaps billions.

What isn’t clear, however, is how many of these deaths belong to species classified as “special concern” or a similar label.

Wind energy, for its part, doesn’t seem to discriminate, causing concern for many conservationists in the country.

As already mentioned, in Minnesota, 42 species have been found across four wind farms – six of which are “special concern” or are in the “greatest conservation need” classification.

But elsewhere in the country, particularly the West but even as close as Iowa, there has been numerous fatalities of Golden Eagles and even the occasional Bald Eagle. Electrocution from power lines was already a leading cause of death for eagles in the U.S from 1975 to 2012, killing at least 753 in that time span. Wind turbines, then, with the inclusion of an additional 85 eagle fatalities documented at only ten facilities in the U.S. from 1997 to 2012, is creating another deadly feature of the electrical grid for eagles, birds, and bats alike.

Seeing as wind energy accounts for only 7.3 percent of generation in the U.S., this problem will only get worse if more states commit to wind energy in the future. If this happens, we will need a better understanding of the total number of bird and bat fatalities caused by turbines in order to properly assess the environmental impacts they cause and weigh them against other sources of energy.

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