WHAT OTHERS SAY: Wildlife, wind energy collide at pristine Missouri refuge

Monday, May 19, 2014 | 12:32 p.m. CDT

To say that the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge is a natural treasure in our area is to underestimate its value for both birds and humans.

At Missouri’s Squaw Creek refuge, wind energy and wildlife preservation appear to collide.

As a vital stopping place for millions of migrating birds along the border of the Mississippi and Central flyways, the 7,400-acre plot of wetlands, woodlands and grasslands, 100 miles north of Kansas City, offers people an important refuge, too. It’s a unique spot for communing with and contemplating the rhythms of the world beyond cellphones, flat screens and urban bustle.

Many people who value such places also value the nation’s turn toward capturing the wind as a renewable source of energy, an alternative to the fossil fuels that so dominate our economy, environment and way of life.

Now, a planned wind-power project near the Squaw Creek refuge is creating a collision of environmental values and causing alarm among people who believe those giant tri-bladed turbines pose too great a risk for eagles, migratory fowl, bats and other flying species.

The wind project developer, Element Power of Portland, Ore., has put together leased parcels of land a few miles east of Squaw Creek, in a large swath between the refuge and the state’s Nodaway Valley Conservation Area, from Maitland, Mo., on the north to Oregon, Mo. And it rightfully touts the project as an economic boon to Holt County.

Because the wind farm stands on private property, all the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can do is offer the developer guidance on appropriate laws and a permit process for the “incidental taking” of protected and endangered species. Element Power has been duly informed.

Still, the concerns are real. John Rushin, a biologist who has researched at Squaw Creek for 30 years, told The Star recently: “If I could look all over northern Missouri for the worst possible place to put this thing, this would be it.”

Element Power points to studies indicating “that nuclear and fossil-fueled power plants have far greater impacts on bird populations than wind farms do” and that other causes of bird mortality — buildings, agricultural pesticides and cats, for example — are exponentially greater than wind turbines.

Studies have “reported an average of fewer than 14 bird fatalities ... per MW per year,” according to the American Wind Wildlife Institute, and apparently turbine fatalities are somewhat lower in the Great Plains. For a 200 megawatt wind-power field, as this one is planned to be, that’s 2,800 deaths a year of all species. Fatalities tend to be higher among bats than birds.

Perhaps the cost-benefit ratio works in the power companies’ favor. With little data available about wind power fatalities in close proximity to wildlife refuges, Element Power and Kansas City Power & Light Co., which has contracted to buy power from the venture, should keep the turbines as far away from the Squaw Creek and Nodaway Valley boundaries as possible and operate them with utmost sensitivity to migration seasons and patterns.

Element Power has stated that it expects minimal harm to Squaw Creek wildlife from the Mill Creek Wind Energy Project. We hope the company is right. Environmentalists and the Fish and Wildlife Service will be watching.

The state of Missouri has little authority in such matters, though the state Department of Conservation has been part of the discussion, and its staff members share the concerns over the fate of migratory waterfowl and other species.

Perhaps it’s time to create a siting board, as other states have done, to review and permit the placement of wind developments. In hindsight, this project alone, already out of the gate and planned for completion in 2016, suggests that the need for such oversight is overdue.

Copyright Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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