Wind energy & bird migration

Interactions between development of renewable energy and migration of birds of prey in the central Appalachian Mountains

The future of the US economy, our national security, and our environmental quality all depend on decreasing our reliance on foreign oil and on fossil fuels. An essential component of decreasing this reliance is the development of alternative energy sources. Wind power is among the most important alternative energy sources currently available, and the mid-Atlantic region is a primary focus for wind power development.

In addition to being important to the development of wind power, the mid-Atlantic region also holds a special responsibility for the conservation of the eastern population of North America's golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos). This population is small, geographically separate, and potentially genetically distinct from western populations. These birds breed in northeastern Canada and winter in the southern Appalachians, and the entire migratory population passes through this region twice each year.

Movement of these birds is not random and, particularly in spring, migrating golden eagles concentrate in a narrow 30-50 mile wide corridor in central Pennsylvania. Thus, because the fate of these rare birds may depend on responsible management of the habitat they use it is critical to use research to identify ways to mitigate prospective impacts on this and similar raptor species.

The goal of this project is to develop high-resolution spatial data of migration corridors of and habitat use by eastern golden eagles in regions of high potential for wind development. Because golden eagles are an important "umbrella" for other birds, especially other raptors, this project allows wind development while also protecting a suite of potentially impacted species.

 To identify ways to mitigate the impacts of wind power development on eagles requires a multi-step strategy. First, we will expand existing fluid-flow models of raptor migration for the eastern USA to identify broad-scale migration patterns. Second, we will use novel high-resolution data collection tools to discover routes of passage and detailed flight behavior of individual golden throughout the eastern USA. Finally, we will integrate these data and models to predict population-level migration patterns and individual flight behavior on migration. This will allow us to develop spatially explicit models that generate probabilistic regional maps showing relative risk to birds from wind development.

This project will have numerous benefits to people and to wildlife, primarily because it will provide a framework for safer and less controversial development of wind power. At present there is little empirical evidence documenting the impacts of wind power development on birds in the eastern USA. Because golden eagles are an important potential "umbrella" for other birds, especially other raptors, this project benefits a suite of species that may be impacted by wind turbines. In addition, because there are ongoing educational programs at the institutions collaborating on this project, the results of this project will be disseminated beyond state offices, to a broad section of society. Finally, as we document in this proposal, we believe that this work is a recognized priority for the state and is explicitly called for in, and meets the goals of, numerous state wildlife conservation plans.

The final product we propose to create, a region-wide map of relative risk to eagles and similarly flying birds of development of wind power. These maps will allow us to make specific recommendations regarding siting of new wind farms and operation of existing wind farms, to mitigate their impact of wind power generation on eagles and other raptors. We expect that our approach will serve as a model for other projects to conserve suites of species beyond raptors.

Once spatially explicit predictive models have been developed to identify relative risk to birds from development of wind energy, our subsequent goal is to work with industry and state and federal agencies to incorporate model results into location-specific siting and operational strategies of wind turbines to minimize risk to soaring migratory birds of prey.  To do this requires a multi-step process. First, we work with wind energy developers and operators and agency personnel to identify sites, and mechanisms for identifying future sites, of high potential for pre- or post-construction mitigation. Second, once those sites are identified, we use the outputs of models to identify within-site areas or times of relatively high and low risk to birds. Finally, we will work with developers and operators to build a framework to swiftly identify logistically and economically feasible mechanisms to minimize risk to soaring raptors.

Funding: This project is supported through funding from a number of sources. Specifically, we have funding from Pennsylvania State Wildlife Grants through the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune of Quebec, the US Department of Energy, and several other sources.

Collaborators: Tricia Miller, a biologist at West Virginia University and a graduate student at the Pennsylvania State University is currently leading GIS studies on this project. She is joined by Michael Lanzone of Cellular Tracking Technologies and David Brandes of Lafayette College. A number of other people are also important to this project, including Kieran O’Malley (WVDNR), Jeff Cooper (VDGIF), Charles Maisonneuve and Junior Tremblay (Govt. of Quebec), Rob Brooks (PSU) and numerous other biologists from throughout the range of golden eagles in the eastern USA.