Power line collisions kill millions of birds every year. Why electric co-ops are taking the problem seriously.
With an 8-foot wingspan of white feathers rimmed in black, the sight of an American whooping crane in the wild is a remarkable moment. Their sheer rarity—fewer than 500 wild whooping cranes remain in the U.S.—and it’s little wonder a glimpse of the big bird tops the bucket list of most naturalists. But it is the crane’s size that contributes to its high mortality rate. Standing 5 feet high, it is the tallest bird in North America. One of the chief culprits in the demise of the iconic whooping crane: power lines.
Hardly alone in their vulnerability to high lines, whooping cranes are one of an estimated 25 million birds killed every year by contact with power lines. For your electric cooperative, whooping cranes, bald eagles, golden eagles and other protected species present unique challenges in their goal to provide reliable power. Fortunately for birds and bird enthusiasts, some co-ops are realizing that their obligation to serve their members can coexist with threatened wildlife, and even complement their mission. First, it helps to understand the problem.
Power Line Perils
“Power lines pose a problem to birds, and large birds in particular, because they’re often unable to see the neutral wire. If it’s foggy or the weather is bad, it can be even more difficult for them,” explains Jeremiah Zurenda, energy and private lands biologist at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife.
Another species of concern, the lesser prairie chicken, refuses to nest near visible power lines or other vertical structures. While whooping cranes tend to strike high lines as they take off or land near a wetland roost or wheat field, other big birds such as eagles, hawks and owls collide with lines as they dive for prey, Zurenda adds.
“When you think about it, power lines have only been around for the past 100 years. The bird’s biological instinct tells them to focus on the prey on the ground. It doesn’t include an awareness of power lines,” he says.
Zurenda makes himself available to Oklahoma energy companies to help them design projects with the least possible impact on wildlife.
“Sometimes there’s an impression that we’re out to make their jobs harder, but that isn’t true,” he says. “We understand multi-use purposes.”
After all, power lines provide electricity that powers the rural economy. So what can co-ops do to avoid harming birds, especially endangered species such as the whooping crane, without compromising their mission to provide affordable electricity? It turns out, quite a lot.
Based in Anadarko, Oklahoma,Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (WFEC) generates and transmits electricity over 3,750 miles of line, much of it located in the migration path of the whooping crane. Every year the cranes make a biannual journey from their winter home along the south Texas coast to summer nesting grounds in Canada and back again. The flight corridor, some 200 miles wide, cuts a swath through the western half of Oklahoma, with cranes stopping every 25 to 50 miles along the route to roost and feed.
At WFEC, it falls on John McCreight, environmental coordinator, to ensure co-op infrastructure poses the least possible threat to critical habitat, migration, and nesting areas for endangered and threatened birds and other wildlife. This can involve rerouting or redesigning stretches of line, installing bird diverters on high lines to make them more visible, training staff to recognize nests and habitat, and rescheduling construction or maintenance outside of prime nesting periods.
Treading lightly on Mother Earth takes work, McCreight admits. Before any project begins, WFEC conducts a detailed environmental review that includes lengthy consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife, and other agencies. A field biologist is dispatched to assess the proposed right of way for critical habitats, wetlands and waters. Finally, all data collected is combined with geographic information system maps showing wetlands, topography, and other factors to provide a blueprint for avoiding sensitive areas.
“With all our projects we are looking out for the natural resources of our state, but at the same time, we’re using these environmental protection measures to improve our system reliability,” McCreight points out.
Perching birds, scampering squirrels, and other wildlife drawn to the high vantage points of power poles and substations cause 11 percent of U.S. power outages every year. Bird nests, even accumulated bird doo, can trigger equipment malfunctions and fires that disrupt service and create safety hazards for line workers. A power outage for any reason results in loss of productivity, not to mention comfort, for consumers and businesses. For an electric co-op, the expense in dispatching crews to restore power, plus the cost to repair or replace damaged equipment, is a financial burden shared by its members.
But efforts to thwart critters also come with a price, McCreight says. WFEC spent some $1.2 million installing bird diverters along 150 miles of transmission lines in the whooping crane corridor alone. Studies from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service find diverters are one of the most effective means of preventing power line strikes. They also help shield WFEC from potential liability.
While power lines aren’t erected to intentionally harm wildlife, their presence alone makes utilities liable for injuries or deaths to endangered animals. Established in 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects whooping cranes, bald eagles, golden eagles, and more than 1,000 other birds by making it illegal to hunt, kill, capture, or sell birds or their parts, feathers, nests or eggs without a permit. Corporate violators risk fines of up to $15,000 per violation and possible jail time. In 1999, the electrocution of 17 eagles and hawks resulted in a $100,000 fine and three years probation for an electric co-op in western Colorado. That incident and others since have served as a wake-up call for co-ops across the country to take a closer look at how their infrastructure affects wildlife.
Based in Cherokee, Oklahoma, Alfalfa Electric Cooperative (AEC) lines run adjacent to one of the nation’s premier layovers for migrating birds. The 33,000-acre Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge teems with birds and wildlife drawn to the saline flats and wetland marshes. Listed as critical habitat for the whooping crane, the refuge also serves as nesting grounds for the endangered least tern, the snowy plover, and thousands of other birds.
Cognizant of the natural treasure at their doorstep, AEC worked with refuge officials early on to design bird-friendly lines along the east side of the refuge. With the Colorado incident weighing on their minds, in 2003 the co-op took advantage of a highway construction project to rebuild 5 additional miles of line along the sanctuary’s northern border.
“We lowered the cross arm 7 feet from the overhead neutral wire to create more space between wires,” says Jim Daub, supervisor of engineering and operations. “We did that specifically for the whooping crane, but it helps other large birds, too.”
The co-op has since taken other measures to protect birds and wildlife by installing wildlife guards on every transformer that leaves their warehouse. One device issues a mild shock to deter nesting and perching on transformers; the other creates a rubber barrier between the hot wire and the transformer to protect the animal from electrocution—and prevent a possible outage.
“Our members expect reliable service, but at the same time, we’re not in the business of killing anything,” Daub says. “By being proactive about this, we’re helping the wildlife and our members. Everybody wins.”
At the national level, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) is finalizing an avian protection plan that will include suggested guidelines for construction and other best practices for co-ops to adopt. Taking care of the environment is part of a co-op’s commitment to community.
“The majority of our assets are located in rural Oklahoma and that’s where wildlife is most abundant,” says McCreight of WFEC. “By taking proper conservation measures, we’re being good stewards of our natural resources and ensuring they will be there for future generations to enjoy.”