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Audubon report showcases bird-friendly solutions to renewable energy buildout

At sunset, a view of a body of water with transmission towers with a bird flying silhouetted on the horizon.
Jill Clardy
A double-crested cormorant flies by transmission towers in Redwood City, California. A new Audubon report contends efforts for bird conservation and renewable energy buildout have the potential to go hand-in-hand.

A newAudubonSocietyreport on birds and power transmission lines pushes for a clean energy grid, but warns the buildout could harm birds. Yet the report contends collaborative planning can create a symbiotic relationship between those pushing for clean energy and others seeking to protect bird species.

Audubon has supported renewable energy for many years. The organization views clean energy development as a solution to the warming world that has puta strain on nearly two-thirds of all bird species and their habitats. But building that infrastructure involves the construction of power lines that could remove birds’ habitats and prove fatal for birds once constructed.

“We can't have bird habitat be the reason we allow climate change to happen and lose those bird species that are affected, but we also can't allow our response to climate change (to) be a driver for losing bird habitat across the country,” Jonathan Hayes, the executive director of Audubon Southwest, said.

The report presents data from a study published by the National Library of Medicine that shows anywhere from 8 to 57 million birds die each year from collisions with power lines. Along with the poor design of many power lines the morphology of some birds’ eyes and wings – like cranes and game birds – can also impact their ability to steer clear of the lines. Thus, many existing and planned transmission lines in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, prove detrimental to birds that use the Mountain West as a migration corridor.

“Where (there are) larger, darker colors, that's what's going to show where we see the highest potential for collisions with birds,” said Hayes as he pointed to a map with a color gradient (below). “Over the Front Range of Colorado, up into Wyoming and Cheyenne area, actually, the map is a little hot in that area.”

A white map of the U.S. with gray, yellow and orange dots in different parts and many regions largely white in color with a map key showing a color gradient from gray to brown on the right.
Lotem Taylor
This map from the Birds and Transmission report shows the priority areas that birds use in migration or temporary habitation and where they co-occur with existing and planned transmission lines. Areas marked in darker colors and with larger symbol sizes are the more critical areas where addressing the risk of bird collisions with power lines is needed.

Additionally, construction of new lines can disrupt bird habitats. Loss of habitat has been the leading cause of bird deaths since 1970.

Audubon believes it should have “a seat at the table” in planning for a clean energy future, according to the report, as the organization believes bird conservation and the renewable energy buildout could go together if adequately planned for.

“We're not going to use birds as the excuse to slow down renewable energy deployment. We can do both, and we have to do both,” Hayes said. “We're in a unique position to advocate for the electricity grid that birds need, one that will allow for clean energy development while minimizing negative impacts on birds, wildlife and people.”

Audubon advocates for more route planning – putting power lines closer together to avoid loss of habitat – and line configuration – orienting multiple transmission lines horizontally so they take up less space and are easier for birds to fly over. The organization also promotes more “bird-friendly” transmission lines that increase wire visibility and keep wire spans as short as possible.

But Hayes said the planning and rollout of these new lines could take around 15 years.

“We don't have a system that's currently set up to make good choices quickly,” he said. “We tend to take a long time and we make OK choices, and that’s not what we need going forward.”

Despite the time limitations, Audubon is promoting other creative solutions. A few years ago, researchers developed ultraviolet lights that only birds can see to illuminate flight paths. It lowered collisions by 98% at the Rowe Conservatory in Nebraska. Audubon plans to test out this technology next on the Sunzia Transmission Line along the Rio Grande in New Mexico.

Hayes hopes regardless of the solution, people see the importance of saving birds from climate change and coexisting together.

“The level of hubris that has to come with saying that after 100 years of industrial development, we're okay with letting species go extinct, to me is disturbing, it’s disgusting,” he said. “The truth is, we'll just be a much less interesting world.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.

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