In 2012 Scientific American asked:
Are Wind Turbines Getting More Bird and Bat-Friendly?
In case you weren’t aware, wind energy has an ecological downside that’s hasn’t yet been smoothed out. As AP reporter Dina Cappiello wrote earlier this year, “the green industry is allowed to do not so green things”:
It kills protected species with impunity and conceals the environmental consequences of sprawling wind farms.
More than 573,000 birds are killed by the country’s wind farms each year, including 83,000 hunting birds such as hawks, falcons and eagles, according to an estimate published in March in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin.
Now, before I go any further, it’s important to note that cats are way bigger bird killers than wind turbines (taking out an estimated 2.4 billion birds per year in the U.S.). That said, the question of whether the wind industry is being kinder to wildlife is a pertinent one. And one answer, according to research published in the December issue of Bioscience is no. A new study concludes that in 2012 “over 600,000 bats may have died as a result of interactions with wind turbines.” Why is this important and how are the bats dying? From the Bioscience press release:
Bats, although not widely loved, play an important role in the ecosystem as insect-eaters, and also pollinate some plants. They are killed at wind turbines not only by collisions with moving turbine blades, but also by the trauma resulting from sudden changes in air pressure that occur near a fast-moving blade.
That was the headline of a book review I wrote years ago about Boulder, Colorado being stalked by mountain lions. When I briefly lived there in the late 2000s, some of the natives (okay, they were my colleagues) sniggered at my histrionic fears.
Now it looks like the wildlife in Boulder is getting even peskier. Check out this hilarious dispatch from Jonathan Thompson, a former editor of mine at High Country News. He shares some of his recent encounters, such as this one:
A couple of weeks after I arrived in Boulder, I was riding down a path when I turned a corner and the path appeared to be covered by a beige, many-headed, writhing monster, forcing me to lock up my brakes. The monster turned out to be a pack of prairie dogs that had taken up residence on either side of path. Later, when I mentioned the incident to acquaintance, she asked: “Are you for the prairie dogs? Or against them?” Wildlife politics in Boulder are often much more dangerous than the wildlife itself. Boulder prohibits the killing of the prevalent prairie dogs sans permit, yet some of them have been known to carry the plague (a serious downer for a Boulder fitness regime). So, some folks want them relocated; others say no. It’s a heated, sometimes just weird, (even weirder) debate. I don’t think the fact that Boulder’s prairie dogs will be the subject of a climate change study will ease the tension.
I’m telling you, even the big alpha rats in New York City, my natural habitat, know their place in the pecking order. I miss Boulder dearly, but the people there are in danger of loving their cutesy nature a little too much.
The reasons that the desert Southwest is having another extreme fire season are complex. They include decades of poor forestry and livestock grazing practices, misguided federal firefighting efforts that have prevented low-intensity fires in Ponderosa pine forests from clearing out underbrush and small trees, and prolonged, exceptional drought caused by climate change.
John Fleck, a science writer for the Albuquerque Journal, grasps the complexity of the fire story, and Andrew Freedman does a superb job unpacking the scorching Southwestern drought in a must-read post at the WaPo’s Capital Weather Gang blog:
The drought was caused in part by La Nina conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which altered the main storm track across North America, helping to steer storms across the northern tier, leaving southern areas desperate for rain. Although La Nina has waned, there are increasing signs that it may redevelop this fall or winter, according to the latest outlook from the Climate Prediction Center.
However, La Nina wasn’t the only force behind the drought, says [Marty] Hoerling, who leads a group of climate change attribution sleuths at NOAA. For now, though, the co-conspirators remain unknown. Although climate science research shows that droughts are likely to become more intense and more frequent in a warming world, particularly in the Southwestern US, observational evidence does not yet show clear trends in drought conditions in the U.S. to date.
Hoerling says his quick analysis led him to conclude that climate change has not played a major role in this event. “This is not a climate change drought by all indications,” he said, adding that this view does not in any way refute the fact that global warming is occurring, either.
Hoerling noted that as average temperatures increase due to climate change, drought impacts would likely get worse. Drought plus heat “is just going to make a bad situation that much worse,” he said, since higher temperatures dry soils out much more rapidly. “We haven’t necessarily dealt with drought and heat at the same time in such a persistent way.”
He said the drought serves as a reminder that society needs to be more prepared for significant, relatively rare events such as this one, regardless of whether they are due to global warming or natural climate variability.
Bob Simon, the wildlife correspondent for 60 Minutes, offers an unvarnished perspective on naturalists and wildlife biologists, and why he loves animals. Earlier this week, he was interviewed by Ann Silvio, an editor with 60 Minutes Overtime. Check out the short video segment. Meanwhile, here’s the good stuff.
Silvio: Is there something about doing animal stories that is more pleasurable than doing a people story?
Simon: An animal is never duplicitous. An animal will never get involved in gratuitous cruelty. And it’s very refreshing to go see them after you’ve spent a lot of time interviewing politicians.
Talk about nailing both human and animal nature in one punch! In another exchange towards the end of the short segment he makes another interesting observation:
Silvio: You’ve met a lot of people who devote their lives to a particular species, but also a particular small community of animals.
Simon: That’s right. These are wonderful people. I’ve never met one of these people who have devoted their lives to animals that I didn’t like. And they’ve all got quite a bit in common.
Silvio: Like what?
Simon: They don’t like people very much.
Bryan Walsh at Time has a nice deconstruction of the recent cluster of sudden animal deaths he sardonically refers to as
the Aflockalypse, the Aquapalypse or some other clever term that will soon be trending on Twitter.
With so many mass animal deaths occurring together in such a short period of time, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask the question: are the end times nigh?
Actually, no, it’s not reasonable at all. While it is possible that these string of suspicious animal deaths could signal some kind Revelations-like event a third of the living creatures in the sea died“), it’s really, really, really unlikely. For one thing, as they examine the deaths, scientists are already beginning to come up with explanations””none of which so far involves a pale horse and pale rider.
The Wildlife Society asks:
Can a 10 pound bird bring down an 80 ton airplaine?
When an aircraft and a goose collide, the goose weighs more than an elephant during the instant of collision. This force is enough to cripple an aircraft and can force emergency landings (We all remember the Miracle on the Hudson). Birds colliding with airplanes are not rare events; on average this kind of accident happens almost 20 times a day.
So what to do? Well, for one thing, you can disappear the culprits overnight. But in this case, there is a question as to whether the right culprits were rounded up, or whether that was even a very nice thing to do.
“Basically we have created a goose buffet with our grass lawns in parks, yards and golf courses,” says Helen Ross of the Seattle Audubon Society. She points out that geese have abundant nesting sites, no predators, and easy access to their favorite food: freshly cut grass.
“Geese are symptomatic of our long-term, poor management of urban ecosystems,” she says.
So we created the problem. Where have I heard this story before?
Anyway, here’s the deal we cosmopolitan nature lovers have with wildlife, be it in Brooklyn or Boulder, Colorado:
Don’t get too close, or I’ll have to kill you. (And that includes my plane!)
Several days ago, Andy Revkin wrote a Dot Earth post about what I would characterize as an ecotopia for conservationists:
After three years of meetings and study, a broad array of conservation groups, government scientists and other experts on North American wildlife policy have produced a road map for restoring some large free-roaming populations of bison in the North American plains.
As Revkin goes on to detail, the plan would have to overcome significant political and cultural hurdles. Tellingly, at the end of his post, Revkin asks a question that hints at his take on the idea:
Can we, or should we, get comfortable with what amounts to an engineered “Eden”?
Ah, what I would give to be able to discuss this more often than the latest skirmish over climate science. Because there is much here that signifies how environmentalists still view nature and humans as separate entities.
One gruff commenter, obviously perturbed at the rewilding concept, nonetheless channels my thoughts when he asks:
what is the reason for this lamentable sentimentalism when it comes to certain animals and physical landscapes? things change.
Another commenter, noting all the positive reaction on the thread to the notion of reintroduced bison, is similarly sarcastic:
It’s fascinating how many of the comments mention the glorious sight of buffalo on the plains…
Are ya just hoping for something better to look at when you drive through?
Did you consider that actual midwesterners would have to be consulted before you went through with your theme-park plan for the Great Plains?
Are *you* going to subsidize the industrial-strength fencing that will keep the behemoths off the highway?
How much to indulge this toxic sentimentality about a mythical before-time when all was bright and clean and morally correct?
As I was reading though the post and comments, I was reminded of a review I wrote four years ago, of a book called Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America, by Paul Martin. I summarized the book’s concept as thus:
Martin argues for returning the ancient beasts””sloths, saber-toothed tigers, mastodons, and other extinct megafauna””to their old stomping grounds in North America. Okay, what he really wants is to restore their evolutionary lineage by rewilding parts of the American desert and prairie with their latter-day relatives, such as the elephant and the cheetah, whose current prospects in Africa are otherwise considered dim because of poaching and habitat loss.
Now that would be something to see as we drive through.
There is no doubt that some individuals and organizations will have a difficult time shifting from a mindset where wolves are rare creatures that need every protection to one where wolves are common and can become pests. To quote a 2005 article by Jim Robbins in Conservation in Practice (October-December: 28-34), “In the wake of successful wolf reintroductions, managers who once fervently defended wolves are now faced with killing them. Are we ready for modern predator management?”
Hutchins then points to a similar “transition” that had take place when the alligator population rebounded in Florida.
Once perilously close to extinction, these large reptiles have recovered as the result of government protection. There are now some 1-2 million in Florida alone. In order to manage potential conflicts between alligators and people, the state of Florida sanctions a regulated annual hunt. In addition, it removes another 15,000 or so gators a year following public complaints of aggressive behavior.
As a conservationist, I can only hope that we are faced with many more of these dilemmas, as it will mean that carnivore conservation has been a roaring success.
This is a pretty big generalization coming from a wildlife professional:
Most Americans know very little about wildlife and nature, and this affects their ability to make intelligent, rational, and well-considered decisions.
Also, I don’t think that intelligence + knowledge of nature necessarily = “rational, well-considered decisions.” In Boulder, Colorado, where I just spent a year, people are highly intelligent but let the deer roam wild because they like having Bambi in their midst. That attracts the mountain lions. I wouldn’t call this behavior on the part of the Boulder residents “rational” or “well-considered.”