Wind power, birds, public policy, and the irrational fears of non-voters

Michael Giberson

Should public policy accommodate the irrational fears of non-voters?

In this case, the phrase “irrational fears” refers to a seemingly innate overwhelming aversion to vertical structures, namely wind turbines and high-voltage transmission lines, and “non-voters” refers to the lesser prairie chicken.

A few weeks ago the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal ran a story on wildlife issues surrounding wind power development that focused particularly on a relatively local issue: the potential impact of wind power development on populations of the lesser prairie chicken.  The lesser prairie chicken is said to have an innate fear of vertical structures, so wind towers and transmission lines contribute to fragmentation of habitat.

Lesser prairie chicken are considered “vulnerable,” not yet “endangered” or “threatened,” but wildlife biologists anticipate that within a year or two the species may become listed.  An Associated Press article, “Ground bird is a wind issue,” observes that, if the species is listed “there would be significant restrictions on companies hoping to plant towering turbines across a five-state region believed to have some of the nation’s best wind energy potential.” That “five state region” is centered around the Texas Panhandle and includes nearby areas in eastern New Mexico, Oklahoma, and southern Colorado and southern Kansas.

Currently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asks companies not to build turbines within five miles of a lek (a prairie chicken breeding area, see Wikipedia if you want to know more about lekking).  The science of the five-mile limit has been questioned, the guidelines are being reviewed and updated, and a report is expected this fall.  The Associated Press noted, “For energy companies, it’s a race. If transmission towers to bring the energy from the turbines to utility companies are up before the bird is listed, the structures would be grandfathered. If not, they probably would have to avoid the birds’ habitat.”

In print the Lubbock A-J story was headlined KILLER BLADES is very large print (if you come by my office in the next few weeks, I’ve got a copy you can look at).  I thought the title a bit overdramatic for a couple of reasons:

  • First, discussions of wind power’s “avian mortality” issue are very focused on what is easy to see – some dead birds near turbines – and tend to ignore what is hard to see – birds still alive due to reduced emissions from fossil fuel plants. (More commentary here on the “seen and the unseen.”)
  • Second, since the article focused on the lesser prairie chicken, a ground bird rarely more than five or ten feet off of the ground, the likelihood that one of the birds would ever come into contact with a wind turbine blade is essentially zero.
  • Third, this really is an irrational fear on the part of the lesser prairie chicken.  The AP article suggests that the fear is due to an “evolutionary aversion to tall structures around its breeding and nesting grounds because its predators include raptors, which perch in high places.”  To the extent that wind turbine blades and power lines are threats to birds, they are particularly threats to raptors and other fast-flying predators.  The lesser prairie chicken would likely be safer under the sheltering protection of a fast-spinning wind turbine.

So rather than a public policy process which may be inducing a wasteful race to invest before potentially stringent (and still more wasteful) resource restrictions are put into place, why doesn’t the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service just hire some wildlife psychologists to offer the little birds therapy sessions to help them with their irrational fears?

GEOGRAPHIC NOTE: The region to the south of the Texas Panhandle is sometimes referred to as the Llano Estacado, Spanish for “staked plains” (okay, technically, a better translation is “palisaded plains,” but now you don’t know what I’m talking about, and anyway, most people around here say “staked plains”).

OMITTED HUMOROUS MOVIE REFERENCE NOTE: I thought about titling this post “Stakes on a Plain,” because, you know, which is funny since in this case the “stakes” are scary to the lesser prairie chicken just like the in the oh, you got it? Okay.


One thought on “Wind power, birds, public policy, and the irrational fears of non-voters

  1. Irrational or not, who is it to say what fears are or aren’t important? Just because a person doesn’t votes doesn’t automatically make their opinion less important. They are still citizens of this country and should be heard. Though politically, they may be unimportant, from a policy standpoint they are just as important as everyone else.

Comments are closed.