Hiding the wind turbine bird slaughter: Part 2 – The 48-hour study

August 26, 2013
by Jim Wiegand

Tricks the Wind Industry Plays

In 2012, Altamont Pass turbine operators released the results of their 2005-2010 study. They claimed they had achieved substantial reductions in raptor and other bird mortalities, and that part of this reduction resulted from the industry replacing small older turbines with much larger new units. The claim raised questions and eyebrows among knowledgeable bird researchers, who know that mortality searches at Altamont are still finding an increased number of bodies amid the turbines. They also know there are many ways to manipulate mortality studies to achieve the desired outcome.

Go to Jim Wiegand’s original article on MasterResource.org

For instance, industry-paid researchers arbitrarily reduced their golden eagle death estimating factor to 20% of their previous (10.8) body-to-carcass ratio (down to 2.2); otherwise their estimated mortality would have been an intolerable 200 eagles per year. They slashed mortality factors for the other raptors (originally 7 to 28 times actual body counts) to between 2.2 and 7.6 times. This was done even though turbine size, blade length and area swept by the bird-butchering blades had skyrocketed at Altamont.

The only way these changes make sense or can be justified is by recognizing that these bird populations have already been decimated so many times that the species are now rapidly declining in the area, and this wind facility is killing off a higher percentage of the smaller remaining population. Other realities are also involved, however.

On the largest turbines, researchers continue to use an undersized 75-meter search radius, even though the much larger turbines are known to catapult birds and bats much further from turbine towers. They may also be attributing mortality from the large turbines to the smaller ones nearby (see Figure 1). While the smaller 75-meter search area is generally fine for the 50-100 kW turbines, since some 85% of all fatalities are found within that search radius, the search radius must be much wider (200-250 meters) for the 2.5-MW turbines, to achieve valid results.

In addition, hundreds of carcasses were eliminated from mortality estimates, because they were picked up by wind farm personnel ahead of searchers looking for high priority species like eagles and hawks.

Researchers are also assuming higher search efficiencies; that is, a suddenly increased ability to spot bird carcasses. But the improved search efficiency rates are themselves based on studies that cannot possibly be considered credible. They used dead pigeons, gulls and ravens, whose white and black feathers make them easy to spot around turbines – instead of the primary species, whose camouflaged bodies are hard to see.

For example, a study intended to determine how many bird carcasses are removed by scavengers used Japanese quail bodies that were too big for Altamont’s most prolific scavengers (gulls, ravens and crows) to remove. This made it appear that scavengers are eating few of the turbine fatalities, which again lowers mortality calculations. In addition, an equally clever and far more sinister tactic is also being employed.

Instead of daily searches over a period of several weeks, mortality studies employ occasional searches conducted only every 30 to 90 days. This virtually ensures that small birds and bats are removed and/or eaten. Studies from across the country indicate that nearly 90% of small carcasses vanish in the first two weeks, and 97-100% are gone within 30 days. This is
especially true for Altamont Pass, where thousands of gulls patrol for food. It also explains why Altamont searchers found only 21 bat carcasses, when probably thousands were consumed during their six-year study.

The 2005-2010 data from Altamont recorded an average of 372 small carcasses per year. However, by applying a .85 search area factor, a small bird searcher efficiency rate of 38-40% (based on other studies) and a 97% (.03 remaining) removal rate after 36 days of scavenger activity reveals that the annual death toll for small birds at Altamont is actually much closer to 73,000 to 76,840 for its current 500 MW of installed capacity.
This is why daily searches are so important. It is also explains why they have been avoided. With each passing day, the mortality data become less reliable and without a body, searcher efficiency and scavenger removal rates mean nothing if all the carcasses of a species vanish.

There is no justification for 30-90 day search intervals when scavenger removal for small birds and bats are known to be 100% within 21 days at some wind turbine locations and without a body there is no data to extrapolate.

In short, the methods used at Altamont (and other wind energy facilities) violate scientific integrity principles. But they are perfect for hiding true mortality counts. The 24 hour search intervals are critical for reliable data, even mortality studies going back decades on communication towers used daily searches for the most reliable carcass data.

However, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, California Fish and Wildlife Department, and supposed bird protection groups have given the wind industry carte blanche to write its own study criteria and kill countless protected birds and bats. That is something they have never done for any other industry. Wind energy gets a pass, because it is supposedly reducing
America’s “carbon footprint,” these groups do not want to sully the wind industry’s eco-friendly reputation, and the industry in turn provides generous contributions to environmental groups and politicians that support wind energy.

The 48-hour study
Altamont Pass researchers are well aware that they are missing thousands of birds and bats in their mortality studies. That is why they insist on using 30-90 day search intervals when looking for carcasses. They want these carcasses to disappear. This conclusion is supported by a four-month study conducted at Altamont Pass several years ago.

Areas around roughly 24 MW of Altamont Pass turbines were searched using 48-hour search intervals. This 48-hour window is important, because thousands of gulls and other scavengers patrol the Altamont wind turbines looking for easy meals around the turbines (and often get killed themselves).

Searchers looking in undersized 40 meter search areas found 70 small bird carcasses. After adjusting for these undersized search areas, injured birds (which will die but are not counted by the wind industry) and carcass removal, I rounded the four-month total to a conservative total of 100 small birds. At first blush, this appears to be a tolerable bird kill (unless it is compared to prosecutions for the accidental deaths of 28 common birds in oil and gas facilities over an entire state during an entire year).

However, once these 100 birds are used to calculate mortality counts for Altamont’s total installed capacity (2008) of 580 MW and a full twelve months, the small bird kill rate soars to 7,250 per year. Combining this body count with a reasonable searcher detection rate of 40% and a credible scavenger removal rate of 30% over two days results in an estimated total of
25,900 small birds per year! If the scavenger rate is boosted to an equally plausible rate of 60% over a two-day period, small bird mortality jumps to 29,500.

That’s 925 to 1,050 times more birds than resulted in the federal prosecution of seven oil companies in North Dakota in 2011 with no investigation or prosecution of wind companies. It is also ten to eleven times more small birds than the 2,700 fatalities that Altamont operators admitted killing per year, based on their “eco-friendly” research methods during the period when the 48 hour study was conducted.

Considering the critical analysis presented in this article, it seems very reasonable to conclude that new studies employing proper search areas, trained dogs, 24-hour search intervals and no culling of birds by wind energy employees would produce far greater totals – easily exceeding 25,900 small birds per year, plus thousands of bats, raptors, and other birds.

There can be no doubt that the Altamont mortality is far greater than what is being reported. In my opinion, Altamont pass is actually killing 50,000-100,000 birds and bats per year and has been for decades. And that is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of wind turbine mortality, considering that more than 40,000 turbines are now operating in the United States, many of them in or near important bird and bat habitats. As Paul Driessen, Mark Duchamp and others have concluded, based on careful bird and bat mortality studies in Spain and Germany, it is highly likely that US wind turbines are killing between 13 million and 39 million birds and bats every year – including hundreds of bald and golden eagles, thousands of hawks, falcons, owls and other raptors, and dozens of extremely rare whooping cranes!

No wonder the taxpayer and consumer-subsidized wind industry is so intent on rigging its mortality methodology and making sure that no meaningful or accurate studies are conducted. They would raise such a public outcry that nearly all of the 40,000 turbines would be shut down.

Considering the trivial amount of electricity they produce (less than 2% of all US electricity output) and the vanishingly small amount of carbon dioxide they reduce, even a nearly total wind turbine shutdown would be justified and would hardly be noticed.

My next article will explain how studies of Wolfe Island’s 86 wind turbines are also concealing most of the bird and bat mortalities that occur there each year. Those numbers could easily be in the range of 200-300 bird and bat fatalities per MW per year – when the wind industry is reporting just 8.2 per MW at Wolfe Island.

Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area Bird Fatality Study, Bird Years 2005–2010, Prepared for Alameda County Community Development Agency, November 2012. Prepared byICF International

ICF Jones & Stokes, Draft Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area 48-Hour Search Interval Bird Fatality Study, June 2009. M32. (ICF J&S 00904.08.) Sacramento, CA. Prepared for: Altamont County Community Development Agency, Hayward, CA. http://www.altamontsrc.org/alt_docm32_apwra_draft_48_hour_search_interval_kb_study.pdf

Smallwood, K. S., and C. G. Thelander, Developing Methods to Reduce Bird Fatalities in the Altamont Wind Resource Area, Final Report by BioResource Consultants to the California Energy Commission, Public Interest Energy Research – Environmental Area, Contract No. 500-01-019 (L. Spiegel, Project Manager), 2004. http://altamontsrc.org/alt_doc/cec_final_report_08_11_04.pdf

Insignia Environmental, 2008/2009_Annual Report for the Buena Vista Avian and Bat Monitoring Project. September 4, 2009 Prepared for Contra Costa County, Martinez, CA.

Greg Shriver. Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology University of Delaware http://www.ceoe.udel.edu/LewesTurbine/documents/lewes_turbine_interim_report_2012.pdf

Longcore T, Rich C, Mineau P, MacDonald B, Bert DG, et al. (2012) An Estimate of Avian Mortality at Communication Towers in the United States and Canada. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34025. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034025 http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0034025

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