Wind turbines could be forcing native bird populations into decline in the Great Plains, a government study finds, raising new concerns about the long-term effects of renewable energy on wildlife.
The U.S. Geological Survey on Monday said wind farms "placed in prime wildlife habitat in North and South Dakota can influence the distribution of several species of grassland birds for years after construction, including species whose populations are in serious decline."
The study, funded by the Geological Survey and utility firm NextEra Energy, was published in the journal Conservation Biology on Friday. The type of long-term research done by the agency on the effects of renewable energy on breeding bird habitats is "rare," the study notes.
The agency found that seven of nine bird species studied from 2003-12 were displaced from areas in North and South Dakota after a wind facility was built. Some of the species fled the area in the first year after construction, while many continued to leave their breeding habitat for up to five years after construction, according to the Geological Survey.
"Displacement typically started one year after construction and persisted for at least two to five years," the agency said.
The study highlights that many of the bird species displaced by renewable energy facilities are in serious decline in the Great Plains. The Geological Survey says "the significantly declining grasshopper sparrow and bobolink were displaced from suitable breeding habitat in native mixed-grass prairies after wind turbine construction."
Few species of birds can adapt to wind farms, according to the study. However, one type of bird, called the killdeer, was actually attracted to the facilities, although only "temporarily," according to the study.
The killdeer was likely drawn to the facilities because it "prefers the gravel of turbine pads and roads for nesting," the government agency said. Another species, the vesper sparrow, was neither displaced nor attracted by turbines.
The other seven birds studied by the Geological Survey were displaced from prime breeding habitats.
Jill Shaffer, an agency scientist and lead author of the study, suggested the findings will help wind developers and land managers "site turbines in areas with minimal impact to birds while striving to meet energy demands, reduce carbon emissions and provide energy security."
"Proper management of these valuable wildlife habitats can help maintain overall ecosystem health for the benefit of animals and people," she said without making any specific policy recommendations.
The study found that "species-specific behaviors can be used to inform management decisions about turbine placement and the potential impact to individual species," according to the report's summary.