The Importance of Balancing Conservation Priorities
As global temperatures rise and preexisting fossil fuel resources are used up, additional sources of energy will be required. Wind, solar, geothermal, wave-generated power have all become industries that are poised to compete with coal, petroleum and natural gas in the twenty-first century. Balanced against the increasing need for energy is the importance of protecting endangered wildlife species, as infrastructure construction projects can frequently have unintended consequences to the occupants of denizens of development areas. While not yet under serious threat, there are estimated to be only around 500 breeding pairs of golden eagles in California, where their nesting grounds have been encroached upon by the installation of a wind farm near San Francisco Bay.
A recent study elucidated the challenge of protecting both wildlife and the energy future of human civilization. Landscapes for Energy and Wildlife: Conservation Prioritization for Golden Eagles across Large Spatial Scales was funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and published on 11 August 2015 through PLUSone, an open access peer-reviewed scientific journal established in 2006. In the study, University researchers Tack and Fedy document the nesting areas of the golden eagle in the North American mountain west, specifically in specific regions of Wyoming with the highest wind-development potential.
In the introduction to the study results, the authors explain the significance of studying the relationship between wildlife and wind farms. “Wind energy is a potentially important source of renewable energy globally. In the United States, the Department of Energy established a benchmark of generating 20% of the U.S. electric supply with wind energy by 2030 (http://www.20percentwind.org). This goal will require a dramatic increase in the number of wind turbines throughout the U.S, and the potential effects of large-scale wind energy development on wildlife are not well understood…”
In absolute numbers, the population of golden eagles in Northern California is under significant threat, as pointed out in a recent post on Engadget, as around 100 of the birds (or approximately 10% of the total number in the area) were killed by wind turbines in 2014. This data point is a prime example of why considerably more study is required to find the best locations for green energy infrastructure in the future.
These 100 eagles represent a rather large fraction of their local group, but only a small fraction of the estimate 300,000 birds killed each year in North America by wind turbines. This figure, in turn, is again dwarfed by yet another—the number of birds killed every year by house cats: 3,000,000,000. The three billion (yes, that’s billion with a “B”) figure is provided by a study featured in a post on treehugger.com that provides some much-needed perspective on this issue. It is always an important part of the process to keep both the relative and absolute numbers in play; a few birds here or there may not seem like a substantial loss in the grand scheme, but to an individual breeding population, even a small loss could be catastrophic.
The PLUSone study concludes with the observation that “minimizing golden eagle mortality and displacement is the major goal in research efforts to identify areas of high species use prior to wind development.” It is imperative that efforts to increase energy production free of the yoke of fossil fuels continue with consideration of other equally important conservation priorities.