National agency questions how many birds die near Vinalhaven turbines

By Heather Steeves, BDN Staff
Posted May 11, 2011, at 8:10 p.m.

VINALHAVEN, Maine — A recently released study that concluded fewer than 10 birds die yearly from the three wind turbines on this Maine island paints too rosey a picture, according to biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We concluded that this project would represent a ‘substantial risk’ to bald eagles,” the service biologists wrote to Fox Islands Wind LLC soon after the bird study was released.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the area on Vinalhaven Island where the turbines are placed is “one of the densest nesting eagle concentrations in Maine.”

At least three eagle nests are within a mile and a half of the turbines, according to the service. At least 33 nests are within 10 miles of the project. Of those, 12 are within four miles of the project.

The letter from the service was issued after local ornithologist Richard Podolsky released his findings from a 28-month bird study on the wind turbines’ effect on local eagles and osprey. The study was required by the town’s wind ordinance. In his time on the island, Podolsky found two small bird corpses near the windmills — not eagles or ospreys — and he can’t say for sure that the turbines killed them. After all, “birds die all the time,” he said Tuesday.

The study was shoddily done, the letter implies. The study tests each dead-bird searcher for efficiency. But during those tests, Podolsky set out quail for the searchers to find, which are much larger than many of the island’s birds and bats, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote. So, likely, the searchers were not as efficient as the study assumed.

Further, the scientists on Vinalhaven should have been out looking for dead and living birds more often, the service officials argued. And they should have been looking in a larger area than they did. Also, the study should have taken at least three years, not 28 months.

“The methods used in your original collision risk assessment need to be more rigorous,” the service officials wrote in the letter.

“If they wanted me out there every day, I would have been. It’s beautiful out there. But the science scales to the size of the project,” Podolsky said on Wednesday. “The client could not have afforded to have a full-time biologist, I don’t think.”

Further, Podolsky said he did his science to meet the town’s requirements, which meant at least monthly surveys of the turbine area. He exceeded those standards, he said.

The wind company, Fox Islands Wind, does not need the Fish and Wildlife Service’s permission anyhow, according to the service’s endangered species biologist Mark McCollough, who helped write the letter to the company. The letter, McCollough said, was purely advisory.

However, the wind company has submitted a permit application to the Fish and Wildlife Service asking for some leeway in eagle deaths. According to McCollough, service officials are still considering the application, which would allow “limited, incidental mortality and disturbance of bald eagles.” But the agency needs a lot more information about bird populations and turbine-related deaths on the island before it hands the wind company a permit, he said.

If the turbines kill any eagles before the permit is approved, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could prosecute the company for the death, McCollough said.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/05/11/news/national-agency-questions-how-many-birds-die-near-vinalhaven-turbines/ printed on September 21, 2014