Discoveries of large numbers of electrocuted raptors in the early 1970s prompted utilities and government agencies to start working to identify the causes of and develop solutions to this problem. Today, public power districts and electric cooperatives in Nebraska have detailed plans in place to help reduce raptor mortality.
These plans are called an Avian Protection Plan (APP), which is a voluntary document that outlines what a rural electric utility will do to mitigate contacts between birds and power lines. Public power districts and electric cooperatives analyze their distribution system for potential high risk areas and work to reduce potential problems during new construction and repair projects. This may include lowering or extending the cross arm on power poles in order to alleviate bird contacts and electrocutions.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—together with the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee (APLIC), a utility organization—have issued guidelines intended to help utilities developing an Avian Protection Plan aimed at minimizing bird collisions with power lines. The Avian Protection Plan Guidelines, created in 2005, were suggested by APLIC as an alternative to more aggressive actions being considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The guidelines predominantly address ways to reduce avian electrocutions, problem nests, and collisions.
Three federal laws in the United States protect almost all native avian species and prohibit “taking,” or killing, them. The Migratory Bird Treat Act protects over 800 species of native, North American migratory birds. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act provides additional protection to both bald and golden eagles. The Endangered Species Act applies to species that are federally listed as threatened or endangered. Rural electric utilities work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other state resource agencies to identify permits and procedures that may be required for nest management, carcass salvage, or other bird management purposes.
An APP should provide the framework necessary for implementing a program to reduce bird mortalities, document utility actions, and improve service reliability. It may include the following elements: corporate policy, training, permit compliance, construction design standards, nest management, avian reporting system, risk assessment methodology, mortality reduction measures, avian enhancement options, quality control, public awareness, and key resources. The guidelines present a comprehensive overview of these elements.
Although each utility’s APP will be different, the overall goal of reducing avian mortality is the same. An APP should be a “living document” that is modified over time to improve its effectiveness.
In Nebraska, rural electric utilities work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Game and Park Commission in developing their APP. All plans must receive approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So far six NREA member-systems have had their APP approved, while another six are still pending. All rural electric utilities comply with voluntary reporting requirements, which has been the rule since the 1980s.
NREA Government Relations Director Kristen Gottschalk works with member-systems to develop an APP and helps foster the relationship betwen utilities and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Gottschalk, a trained biologist, created a model plan that member-systems can use and provides comprehensive training programs on avian protection for them, which is often a required aspect of the APP.
“The goal is to have all of our member-systems with approved plans on file with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” she said. “Utilities that adopt avian protection plans not only can reduce their liability by preventing bird deaths, but they also help demonstrate that the industry is willing and able to protect avian populations.”
Other states are now looking to Nebraska as a model for their own APP programs. Gottschalk and Earl Riley, operations manager and safety director at Wheat Belt Public Power District in Sidney, Neb., spoke to a group of utility and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees in Illinois last year on the subject.
Nebraska has taken a scientific approach with regulators in developing its APP. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission created avian risk maps, which identify areas throughout the state where bird habitats exist. Rural electric utilities can overlay these maps with their own system maps to target possible high risk areas.
Collisions and contacts with power lines aren’t the only human-related sources of mortality that impact birds. Things like window and motor vehicle collisions, predation by domestic and feral cats, and collisions with communication towers, and wind generation facilities. Estimates of avian mortality due to these causes run in the millions annually, far greater than the estimated number of birds killed by electrocution.
Habitat destruction is reported to cause greater reductions in bird and other wildlife populations than any other factor, and is still the most serious long-term threat.
Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and rural electric utilities seek to reduce bird collisions with power lines that result in outages and bird deaths. The challenge lies in how best to achieve this goal. One option that may be gaining popularity with regulators and some utilities is using bird diverters to mark power lines. Various products are available—flappers clamped on the line, coiled PVC wires, spiral vibration dampers, but utility experience has been mixed. In some places, bird diverters have worked. But the product has failed or been of limited effect in other areas, generating frustration and expense for utilities.
Dawson Public Power District, headquartered in Lexington, Neb., became involved with a project in 2007 to combat bird collisions with power lines along the Platte River. More than 450 bird flight diverters were hung from the lines at Rowe Sanctuary.
Since they glow in the dark the devices are commonly referred to as “fireflies”. In addition to their luminous qualities they also spin in the wind and make a noise much like the sound of playing cards on bicycle spokes which allow birds to notice them and avoid the lines.
In 2010 all the devices that had broken were replaced with a non-spinning type. The devices were supplied by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Dawson PPD paid for a helicopter company to complete the replacement project.
A video on what the Nebraska Rural Electric Association and its 34 member-systems are doing to protect raptors and other avian species can be seen at www.workingfornebraska.org.