EarthTalk…Questions and Answers About Our Environment

March 2022

Dear EarthTalk: Has anyone figured out how to build wind farms that don’t negatively impact birds, bats and other wildlife? Does building them off-shore help?      ~ Mary B, Hyannis, MA

As the U.S. tackles the issues of climate change, the Biden administration is investing in wind power as a key strategy for sustainably meeting the country’s energy needs. Federal officials estimate that the U.S. coastline could host 30,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2030, which would be enough energy to power as many as 10 million American homes.

Generating clean, renewable wind power is all well and good except for the killing of birds and bats — but new technologies to mitigate wildlife strikes are giving hope to clean power advocates. Credit: Soumit, FlickrCC.

Wind power is a necessary tool for fighting climate change, but it can be a threat to birds. A 2013 study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute found wind turbines to be responsible for killing up to 328,000 birds annually in the U.S. alone. Bats, another species playing a vital role in ecosystems, are also seeing negative impacts by wind farms. Research has shown that larger, migratory bats are at the greatest risk. In response to these problems, the federal government has allocated $13.5 million specifically earmarked to addressing the impact of windfarms on birds, bats and marine species.

Scientists are focusing their efforts on site analysis, species monitoring and wildlife deterrents. Large birds of prey are the bird species most at risk. In response, some wind farm developments are incorporating new technology that can recognize eagles, hawks and other raptors as they approach in enough time to pause any turbines in the flight path. This tool, called IdentiFlight, can detect 5.62 times more bird flights than human observers alone, and with an accuracy rate of 94 percent.

Developing the best strategies for protecting bats is a bit more of a challenge, but the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is investigating migratory bat behavior with an interdisciplinary approach that will analyze migratory movements, mating and feeding behaviors to determine if they can find patterns that play a role in turbine collisions.

Locating wind farms offshore has been identified as a potential solution to species loss caused by on-land wind turbines. But as with any man-made structure, it is important to subject this potential solution to environmental impact assessments to have a clear understanding of the risks and possible benefits. One study in the United Kingdom found evidence that offshore wind farms could actually increase biodiversity if siting and timing of construction are chosen carefully. The study describes the structures acting as artificial reefs, mimicking natural habitat that can then be colonized by a diverse set of species.

Indeed, as we move towards utilizing more renewable energy, efforts to mitigate impacts on wildlife and surrounding ecosystems will take on increased importance to optimize the overall benefit to humanity and the environment we depend up on to sustain us.

Dear EarthTalk: Whatever happened to the Yukon to Yellowstone (Y2Y) wildlife corridor dream that was in the news years ago?      ~ Jos. Meredith, Bozeman, MT

Conservationists’ dreams of a wildlife corridor stretching from the Yukon to Yellowstone (Y2Y) where “charismatic megafauna” like bears, wolves and caribou can roam freely and have enough continuous undisturbed habitat to thrive is slowly becoming a reality thanks to the dogged determination of thousands of concerned individuals and over 450 partner groups behind them. Since the project’s inception in 1993, green groups, indigenous groups and government agencies have worked together to preserve upwards of 500,000 square miles of the intermountain west for this project, with hopes of adding much more.

Conservationists are working to create a 2000-mile long wildlife corridor between the Canadian Yukon and Yellowstone National Park so wolves and other megafauna can have enough space and resources to thrive.
Credit: Brenda Timmermans, Pexels.

The core of Y2Y is all within the Rocky Mountains, the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountain Trench in British Columbia, and the Liard Plateau in northern B.C. Scientists have collaborated as well to expand Y2Y into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Columbia Mountains of eastern B.C., the Mackenzie Mountains of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, given their similar ecological characteristics.

Unlike other animal crossings, Y2Y is a large area across mountain ranges without a hard boundary. Since natural ecosystems are entirely interconnected, conservationists have drawn soft, flexible boundaries in conjunction with evolving patterns of seasonal movements by wildlife. These untouched areas serve as safe highways for the diverse range of species to feed, breed and migrate without outside interference.

In other sections of the Y2Y region where development has been more commonplace, partner groups have worked to create wildlife-friendly infrastructure to facilitate crossings of roads and other man-made obstructions. They have also set up tracking mechanisms for some species to monitor their success. Meanwhile, other partners have been focused on acquiring real estate parcels that can be left in a natural state or converted back from development to be included in the animal-friendly network of corridors.

In the Y2Y region, conservationists and scientists have focused on the preservation of grizzly bears—an “umbrella” species. Since grizzly bears roam such an expansive area of land in search of food and mates, they play a central role in maintaining the healthy functioning of an ecosystem. Given the population declines and genetic diversity loss of the region, conservationists have especially pushed for wildlife corridors to alleviate the habitat loss and fragmentation among grizzly bears.

Achieving the Y2Y vision has not come easy. Much of the region stretches across private lands. To accommodate both humans and wildlife, conservationists have worked with private landowners to ensure safe passage for wildlife without interrupting human lifestyles. Many oil, gas and mining projects also require access roads, which often cut through natural landscapes and degrade wildlife habitat.

While the Y2Y mission has come far in preserving the natural environments from Yellowstone to Yukon, the initiative calls for further collaboration from diverse communities. Whether it’s volunteering from local groups or partnerships with larger organizations, Y2Y aims to continue its vision of harmonizing a wild and wooly 2,000-mile swath of the North American West.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve recently been really into salads and have been wondering does my consumption of more salads and less meat help fight climate change?        ~ Penelope Marie, via e-mail

Prioritizing salads is indeed a step forward, as meat and animal products lead to pollution and the production of greenhouse gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere and lead to global warming. Methane emissions from cows is a significant source of greenhouse pollution, but livestock agriculture also contributes to global warming in other ways. In fact, the global meat industry would be the third largest polluter if it was a country after the United States and India.

Worse, 58 percent of food emissions come from animal products alone. Another contributing factor is improper storage methods leading to immediate declines in water quality when antibiotics and feces-borne diseases such as e. coli enter waterways. Several containment failures for pig feces in North Carolina in recent years highlight the severity of the problem.

Eating more salad and less (or no) animal products is one of the most impactful ways you can fight climate change and help the planet. Credit: Roman Odintsov, Pexels.

Plant-based diets have the potential for reducing one’s carbon footprint. A carbon footprint is how much each person contributes to climate change through their consumer behaviors, including their support of factory food production.

If you’re one of the 89 percent of Americans who eat meat and other animal products, you’re complicit with factory farming techniques. However, choosing to minimize your meat consumption—by eating salads—can help break this cycle. In fact, a recent study in the journal Food Policy finds that cutting meat consumption in half can reduce a typical American’s carbon footprint by some 30 percent.

Some argue that so-called “ethical consumption” is less significant a factor than institutional action—and therefore individual actors don’t have the capacity to shift global climate problems. But this line of reasoning fails to take into account the importance of citizen and consumer action in shifting societal behaviors. Indeed, consumers can work in tandem with governments and businesses. This could include boycotting meat, advocating for social change or volunteering with or donating to related nonprofit and/or political campaigns. Voting for candidates who take the climate crisis seriously is also an important way individuals can make a difference.

Finally, consider other ideas to reduce your carbon footprint even further. Salads are a great start, but staying mindful of what one puts into a salad is also important. Consider reducing quinoa and almond consumption. Quinoa degrades soil quality. Almonds siphon water away from people and animals, which contributes to drought conditions in California. Focusing on reducing meat consumption as much as possible may also be helpful, including switching to vegetarian proteins such as beans or reducing a reliance on proteins as the centerpiece of a meal.

Even if you’ve already done a great job reducing your carbon footprint in other ways, think about how much more you could be contributing by reducing or eliminating meat from your diet.

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