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Does White-Nose Syndrome Have a Silver Lining for Big-Wind Opponents?


Published May 24, 2011 at 11:31 a.m.

Ordinarily, the several-gram body of a little brown bat is no match for the whirling blades of a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine. The massive rotors don't even have to strike the bats to kill them. Studies done in 2008 and 2009 by Boston University's Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology reveal that low pressure near the rotating blades can be enough to rupture the bats' lungs and cause them to hemorrhage. (Nothing too graphic, but check out the trippy video clips here.)

However, Vermont's bats may soon get a fighting chance against utility-grade rotors. Last week, opponents of big-wind projects filed a letter with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department in support of Rule #11P011, which would extend state endangered species status to two bat species that have been decimated by white-nose syndrome (WNS): the little brown bat (pictured) and the northern long-eared bat. 

As Seven Days reported back in March, the Agency of Natural Resources is moving full steam ahead with plans to list both bat species as endangered in the Green Mountain State. The state list already includes the Indiana bat and small-footed bat.

Vermont's population of little brown bats has declined by 85 to 95 percent since January 2008, when WNS was first identified in the state; the northern long-eared bat has been hit even harder by the lethal fungus. Since the disease was first identified in 2006 in a cave 40 miles west of Albany, N.Y., WNS has killed off millions of bats nationwide, including more than a half-million of the winged mammals in Vermont alone.

Last week, Vermonters for a Clean Environment filed a letter with the Vermont FWD in support of listing the bats. In it, VCE cites 2007 research from the Center For Biological Diversity: "Bats are killed in significant numbers by utility-grade wind energy facilities, with the greatest number of fatalities occurring along forested ridge tops in the eastern United States." In short, VCE is referring to the exact type of wind farms currently in the works in Deerfield, Sheffield and Georgia Mountain.

"There is no question that wind turbines constructed on Vermont ridgelines will kill bats," writes Annette Smith, VCE's executive director. "The only question is how many, and how many is acceptable?"

Some wind farms in other states have been slowed and even halted entirely by their projected impact on threatened or endangered wildlife. Last September, for example, an industrial wind farm in eastern Oregon was tripped up after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that the Oregon Department of Energy not allow any turbines within six miles of a golden eagle nest.

In some states, endangered bats have been afforded similar protections. At the Beech Ridge Wind Farm in Greenbrier County, W.V., for example, the size of a proposed 124-turbine wind farm was dramatically scaled back after several environmental groups, citing WNS and declining bat populations, filed suit in 2009 to protect the federally endangered Indiana bat. In January 2010, a compromise agreement was reached to allow portions of the wind farm to be built, in exchange for the energy company, Invenergy,  abandoning its plans to construct 21 turbines and decommission another 10 that had already been built. Moreover, some turbines were limited to daylight hours of operation and/or to winter months only, when bats are in hibernation.

Interestingly, that same wind company recently abandoned plans to build a 100-turbine wind farm in Brown County, Wisconsin, the Green Bay Press Gazette reported last week. But the Gazette also notes that most of the controversy surrounding that proposed wind farm had to do with health and safety impacts on humans, not flying critters.

Could Vermont's listing of two additional bat species as endangered be a game-changer for Big Wind opponents in the Green Mountain State? Difficult to say just yet. In April 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a set of recommendations from a federal Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on how to minimize the impacts of land-based wind farms on wildlife. That committee, which included Vermont FWD biologist and resident bat expert Scott Darling, recommended a five-tiered approach to assessing the threats of wind development and trying to find ways of mitigating its impact on wildlife.

Interestingly, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unveiled its national plan last week for combating WNS and affording better monitoring and protection of bat species, nowhere in the 17-page report are industrial wind turbines mentioned. Go figure.

Little brown bat photo courtesy of Vermont Fish and Wildlife Dept.