March 3, 2006

"Birds, bats at high risk on Red Oak"

From The Recorder (Va.), March 2:

A study conducted at Highland New Wind Development's site on Allegheny Mountain last fall found a higher rate of nocturnal migration on Red Oak Knob and Tamarack than at sites where other such studies have been conducted.

Sunday, about 75 people turned out for a seminar at The Highland Center when speakers addressed the proposed Highland New Wind Development utility and its potential effects, notably that birds and bats may be in even more danger than previously surmised if the projects is built here.

Wildlife biologist and consultant Dan Boone reviewed the avian study by ABR Inc., the firm hired by HNWD to take a look at migration numbers on the project site. That study shows a higher number of birds and bats are flying through the site than at any other he's seen, Boone said.

"I had always been a proponent of wind energy," he said. After he was hired to study avian effects for a project in Maryland, however, Boone came across a thin report on the utility and, "I couldn't believe how bad the science was," he said. It spurred Boone into becoming an activist and policy analyst opposing wind development in the East.

Boone says despite the fact that the best wind potential lies in the West, the major population centers are in the East, contributing to the drive to develop wind energy in the Mid-Atlantic region, which draws 24 percent of the nation's electric load. "And Highland and Bath are two of the best sites in Virginia for wind," he says, although this area also has some of the most sensitive environmental areas where turbines carry a high potential to be detrimental to wildlife, local economies, and residents.

Boone said the wind industry often argues turbines only kill about two bats each, and that cats kill far more birds. Those arguments, however, do not hold water, he says. For one thing, the kinds of birds killed by cats are common back yard birds, not forest and migratory birds affected by wind utilities.

Bat populations can be seriously and critically affected by wind projects, particularly if the number of facilities proposed in the East are built, creating an overall cumulative effect on their migratory patterns and survival. ...

Golden eagles, a federally protected species, are at risk, too, especially because their Appalachian populations are very small, Boone said.

... In Tucker County, W.Va., at the wind utility on Backbone Mountain, studies concluded some 4,000 bats were killed in one 2003 season -- the highest ever recorded.

Nearly all wildlife impact studies at wind plants to date, Boone notes, have involved the kind of terrain that's different from the forested ridge tops of this region.

Boone explained scientists don't really know yet why bats tend to be attracted to wind turbines -- some surmise it has to do with the low-frequency noise and vibration. But in the Allegheny Mountains, he said, there is a stronger, tighter migration path -- birds and bats use the mountain front as a focused freeway for migrating north and south, and therefore there will always be more of them in a smaller area along this area. ...

Rick Lambert of Monterey, owner of Highland Adventures and active caver, agreed there were serious concerns.

"I have to tell you I was initially for this wind project until I was asked to look at the bat reports for Highland and Pendleton," he said.

After reviewing the studies conducted by HNWD and Liberty Gap, however, Lambert said he found too many errors and inconsistencies. "We really need more research," he said.

Lambert said there are actually four endangered bat species in the area -- the Indiana bat, the Virginia big-eared bat, the gray bat, and the small-footed bat. All of them, he said, are likely to be in Highland County caves, too. Some have been documented here, but Lambert said not all privately-owned caves have been explored or seen at the right times during migration to document the bat populations. He believes there are bound to be far more of these endangered bats in both counties.

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