Two of California's greatest environmental causes, renewable energy and saving the California condor, are on a collision course.
The explosion of lethal prop-style wind farms being built in condor habitat is putting the hard-won future of the condor at risk.
Many condors undoubtedly perish at such wind farms, although official reports attribute losses to other causes. Remember, great financial investments often warrant great cover-ups by those who stand to lose money.
Nearly 1/3 of the captive-bred California condors -- released into the wild since 1992, and closely monitored by scientists, are missing.
If one looks into the scientific literature, ‘collision’ is nearly always listed as a major cause of death to condors, yet there is never any mention of collision in association with the thousands of prop turbines, spinning at 200 deadly miles per hour, in their habitat. In fact, reports are careful to point out that, despite killing thousands of other bird-of-prey species a year, condors are, somehow, miraculously, not victims of the turbines.
Is this believable?
The leading cause of golden eagle mortality in California is collisions with prop wind turbines. (Wiegand: private correspondence.) Golden eagles are lighter and more agile in the air than giant, awkward condors. If eagles can’t avoid the blades, how can a clumsy flier like the imperiled California condor?
At Altamont Pass, where nearly 7000 prop wind turbines choke the landscape, over 1000 birds of prey die each year. One of the most commonly killed species at the Altamont pass wind farm is the turkey vulture.
The California condor, like the turkey vulture, is a scavenger. With their huge wingspans, condors catch thermal air currents and glide for hours looking for food. Flights for food can take a condor as far as 150 miles, so it’s no stretch of imagination to speculate that condors frequent wind farms located within flying distance of their ranges, possibly even attracted to feed on the carcasses of other birds killed by the turbines.
In Spain we have the Griffon vulture, a very large vulture that is slow and awkward in flight, much like the condor. Prop turbine wind farms in Spain have become slaughterhouses for Griffon vultures. Between 2000 and 2006 almost 1000 Griffon Vultures were found dead at just five of Spain’s wind farms in the Zaragoza province. Mark Duchamp of Save the Eagles estimates that nearly 2000 Griffon Vultures die at the prop wind farms in Spain each year. (Wiegand: private correspondence).
Let’s look at the numbers, bearing in mind the intensive efforts, and expense, of tracking, breeding and releasing (under careful surveillance) each and every remaining California condor on Earth.
“The government began releasing condors in 1992, and there are now about 130 condors in the wild, 68 of them in California. Of 127 condors released in California from 1992 through 2006, 46 birds (36 percent) died or disappeared and are presumed dead. Scientists say poisoning from scavenging carcasses tainted by lead ammunition is likely responsible for many of the deaths”.
These figures were published three years ago when wildlife advocates filed suit to replace toxic lead bullets with safer alternatives. Now 3 years later, despite the ban on lead bullets, the number of number of missing and presumed dead Condors is even higher.
Lead is, in fact, a killer. In December, 2007 the California Department of Fish and Game prohibited the use of projectiles containing lead for hunting, since condors were eating carcasses left in the field by hunters and ingesting lead bullet fragments. Wounded animals that escaped would go off and die only to be eaten later by Condors. Scientists found very high levels of lead in some of the sick and dying condors. Similarly in Spain, dangerous levels of lead were also found in the Griffon Vulture.
Yet nothing is said about the possibility of condors also crashing into the blades of California’s largest prop turbine wind farms. Pacheco Pass and Tehachapi Pass are both are located within the condor’s home range and both have been in operation for decades.
It seems there might be an industry cover-up here, doesn’t it?
In response to increasing losses of reintroduced condors and the growing number of unexplained deaths and disappearances, The Ventana Wilderness Society initiated an intensive (weekly) aerial GPS tracking program for all condors in California, beginning in fall of 2000, to augment the ongoing ground-tracking effort. Some of the satellite tracking is shown in the image provided.
The image shows a history of condor sightings in the habitat occupied by the Tehachapi Pass Wind farm. (Wiegand: private correspondence.)
An August 2008 report, “Status of the California Condor and Efforts to Achieve its Recovery”, concluded that the California condor, rescued from extinction in an elaborate and expensive recovery effort, “. . . can't survive on its own without a ban on lead ammunition across its vast western ranges.” The report on these majestic scavengers was prepared by the AOU Committee on Conservation, California Condor Blue Ribbon Panel, A Joint Initiative of The American Ornithologists’ Union and Audubon California.
Again, not one word was written about the possibility Prop Wind Turbines killing condors. Why not? These are all bright people. They all know the danger of prop turbines.
In sharp contrast, in September 1999 The National Audubon Society hosted a news conference to denounce Enron Wind Corp.'s (now owned by GE) plans to build a prop wind farm near the town of Gorman in Southern California.
“It is hard to imagine a worse idea than putting a condor Cuisinart next door to critical condor habitat," said Audubon Vice Pres. Daniel Beard. "The government is encouraging through the tax code the construction of a project that is going to kill a species that another part of the government is spending millions to save," Beard said.
The Tehachapi Pass wind farm (now owned by GE), in operation right next to critical condor habitat, hosts 5000 deadly, spinning prop style turbines.
If that’s not bad enough, in a recent move, Southern California Edison plans to secure 1,500 megawatts or more of power generated from new projects to be built in the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm area. The 2006 contract more than doubles SCE’s wind energy portfolio, and envisions more than 50 square miles (130 km2) of wind parks in the Tehachapi region -- which is triple the size of any existing U.S. wind farm. (Western Governors Association 2007 report, “Southern California Edison signed the largest contract ever for renewable energy in December 2006 and committed to purchase over 1,500 megawatts of wind power for its customers.”)
There is disturbing hypocrisy – or, at best, ignorance, involved in such legislative decisions involving protection of critically endangered species and promotion of ‘green’ energy.
For instance, Assembly bill 821, the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, now makes it a crime to use lead bullets in thousands of square miles of Condor Habitat in southern California that surround the Sacramento Valley floor. (Map shows the area protected by law highlighted in yellow).
Yet it’s not a crime to build a deadly gauntlet of guillotines spinning right in condor flyways.
How much sense does this make?
The Map clearly shows two of California’s largest Prop Turbine farms, Pacheco Pass and Tehachapi Pass, located well within the protected condor habitat. Lead bullets are a great danger to Condors but so are prop turbines. How is the Condor going to be protected from the proliferation of Prop turbines from the wind industry?
This may be the best reason yet to move on from the prop-style era wind turbine, and stop the slaughter of birds of prey. More efficient, vertical shaft wind turbines and other designs currently in development will take care of this problem. There ARE possible solutions on the horizon if we can just get those who approve wind farm developments to insist on banning the archaic prop design turbines.
But the right hand doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing. According to Chris Parish, condor program director for the Peregrine Fund, “Aside from lead poisoning, there is little to stop condors from spreading clear up to British Columbia.” Sorry to say, Mr. Parish, you’re mistaken. Prop turbines will stop the condor as sure as the Great Wall of China stopped invaders from the north.
As it now stands, the California condor will never be able regain a sustainable wild population while there are any prop turbine farms near its habitat. With the condor’s late maturing chicks and very low reproductive rate (after all, a condor SHOULD live 50 or more years), every loss is crucial. It is just too easy for a California condor to cruise a few miles into the spinning blades of a wind farm. The result will be more deaths than births – and the effective extinction of this magnificent bird in the wild, despite years of intensive efforts to save it through captive breeding and re-introductions. In fact, all the other efforts on the condor’s behalf are effectively negated by the very existence of wind farms near its range.
Urge your representatives to ban prop-style wind turbines and explore some of the newer, safer and more efficient designs being developed. With care, we can have both birds and wind energy – but we’ll never get a second chance to save America’s greatest, most magnificent soaring bird.
*Biologist Jim Wiegand is an expert on birds of prey and concludes: "In my opinion California condors have died at the Tehachapi Pass wind farm. An independent team of observers having full access to the Tehachapi Pass Wind farm could confirm this in 12-24 months time. No one from the blue ribbon panels associated with the 2008 Condor report should be a part of the independent team. "