Wind Power:

Impacts on Wildlife and Government Responsibilities for Regulating Development and Protecting Wildlife

GAO-05-906: Published: Sep 16, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2005.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Robin M. Nazzaro
(202) 512-6246
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Wind power has recently experienced dramatic growth in the United States, with further growth expected. However, several wind power-generating facilities have killed migratory birds and bats, prompting concern from wildlife biologists and others about the species affected, and the cumulative effects on species populations. GAO assessed (1) what available studies and experts have reported about the impacts of wind power facilities on wildlife in the United States and what can be done to mitigate or prevent such impacts, (2) the roles and responsibilities of government agencies in regulating wind power facilities, and (3) the roles and responsibilities of government agencies in protecting wildlife. GAO reviewed a sample of six states with wind power development for this report.

The impact of wind power facilities on wildlife varies by region and by species. Specifically, studies show that wind power facilities in northern California and in Pennsylvania and West Virginia have killed large numbers of raptors and bats, respectively. Studies in other parts of the country show comparatively lower levels of mortality, although most facilities have killed at least some birds. However, many wind power facilities in the United States have not been studied, and, therefore, scientists cannot draw definitive conclusions about the threat that wind power poses to wildlife in general. Further, much is still unknown about migratory bird flyways and overall species population levels, making it difficult to determine the cumulative impact that the wind power industry has on wildlife species. Notably, only a few studies exist concerning ways in which to reduce wildlife fatalities at wind power facilities. Regulating wind power facilities is largely the responsibility of state and local governments. In the six states GAO reviewed, wind power facilities are subject to local- or state-level processes, such as zoning ordinances to permit the construction and operation of wind power facilities. As part of this process, some agencies require environmental assessments before construction. However, regulatory agency officials do not always have experience or expertise to address environmental and wildlife impacts from wind power. The federal government plays a minimal role in approving wind power facilities, only regulating facilities that are on federal lands or have some form of federal involvement, such as receiving federal funds. In these cases, the wind power project must comply with federal laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as any relevant state and local laws. Federal and state laws afford generalized protections to wildlife from wind power as with any other activity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is the primary agency tasked with implementing wildlife protections in the United States. Three federal laws--the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act--generally forbid harm to various species of wildlife. Although significant wildlife mortality events have occurred at wind power facilities, the federal government has not prosecuted any cases against wind power companies under these wildlife laws, preferring instead to encourage companies to take mitigation steps to avoid future harm. All of the six states GAO reviewed had statutes that can be used to protect some wildlife from wind power impacts; however, similar to FWS, no states have taken any prosecutorial actions against wind power facilities where wildlife mortalities have occurred.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based on GAO recommendations, FWS has developed consistent communication about the potential wildlife impacts from wind power and has provided this communication through a number of conferences and meetings and information available on its public website. For example, FWS sponsored a June 2006 regional conference in the Great Lakes area that addressed wildlife impacts of wind power development. The conference was, in part, targeted at and attended by state and local regulators. At other conferences and meetings, FWS alerted regulators to the effects of wind development on wildlife about informing them of the availability of expert agency staff, such as migratory bird specialists in FWS field offices. Also, FWS has assisted a number of states in developing guidelines for wind power including California, Colorado, New York, and Ohio. In October 2007, the Secretary established a Federal Advisory Committee to provide advice and recommendations on developing effective measures to avoid or minimize impacts to wildlife and their habitats related to land-based wind energy facilities. The Committee has met over 10 times and produced a number of documents that FWS has posted on its publicly available website. These documents include several draft versions of the Committee's recommendations to the Secretary that will be used to replace FWS's 2003 interim guidelines to avoid and minimize impacts to wildlife from wind energy projects with final national recommendations. The recommendations are intended to be used by all prospective developers of wind energy projects and to serve as a useful, suggested management approach for state and local officials. The draft recommendations outline the nature of the information needed to identify, assess, mitigate, and monitor the potential adverse effects of wind energy projects on birds and bats. The recommendations should help industry make the best decisions regarding siting, design, and operation of wind facilities; ensure regulatory agencies are aware of and consider the factors that present risks to birds and bats; and specifies the types and amount of baseline information needed for adequate review of a wind energy project. In addition, the Committee issued a legal white paper in October 2008 on the authority of various wildlife laws to protect wildlife and habitat and regulate the impact of land-based wind energy; the consequences of noncompliance; and the means by which an individual or entity can avoid or reduce liability and avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse effects on wildlife and habitat under these laws. Other documents posted by the Committee provide state-by-state descriptions of wind power guidance or protocols in use and how wildlife laws are applied to wind power.

    Recommendation: Given the potential for future cumulative impacts to wildlife species due to wind power and the limited expertise or experience that local and state regulators may have in this area, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of FWS to develop consistent communication for state and local wind power regulators. This communication should alert regulators to the potential wildlife impacts that can result from wind power development.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based on GAO recommendations, FWS has developed consistent communication about the resources available to help state and local agencies regulate and/or monitor wind energy projects and has provided this communication through a number of conferences and meetings and information available on its public website. For example, FWS sponsored a June 2006 regional conference in the Great Lakes area that addressed wildlife impacts of wind power development. The conference was, in part, targeted at and attended by state and local regulators. At other conferences and meetings, FWS alerted regulators to the effects of wind development on wildlife about informing them of the availability of expert agency staff, such as migratory bird specialists in FWS field offices. Also, FWS has assisted a number of states in developing guidelines for wind power including California, Colorado, New York, and Ohio. In October 2007, the Secretary established a Federal Advisory Committee to provide advice and recommendations on developing effective measures to avoid or minimize impacts to wildlife and their habitats related to land-based wind energy facilities. The Committee has met over 10 times and produced a number of documents that FWS has posted on its publicly available website. These documents include several draft versions of the Committee's recommendations to the Secretary that will be used to replace FWS's 2003 interim guidelines to avoid and minimize impacts to wildlife from wind energy projects with final national recommendations. The recommendations are intended to be used by all prospective developers of wind energy projects and to serve as a useful, suggested management approach for state and local officials. The draft recommendations outline the nature of the information needed to identify, assess, mitigate, and monitor the potential adverse effects of wind energy projects on birds and bats. The recommendations should help industry make the best decisions regarding siting, design, and operation of wind facilities; ensure regulatory agencies are aware of and consider the factors that present risks to birds and bats; and specifies the types and amount of baseline information needed for adequate review of a wind energy project. In addition, the Committee issued a legal white paper in October 2008 on the authority of various wildlife laws to protect wildlife and habitat and regulate the impact of land-based wind energy; the consequences of noncompliance; and the means by which an individual or entity can avoid or reduce liability and avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse effects on wildlife and habitat under these laws. Other documents posted by the Committee provide state-by-state descriptions of wind power guidance or protocols in use and how wildlife laws are applied to wind power.

    Recommendation: Given the potential for future cumulative impacts to wildlife species due to wind power and the limited expertise or experience that local and state regulators may have in this area, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the FWS to develop consistent communication for state and local wind power regulators. This communication should alert regulators to the various resources that are available to help them make decisions about permitting such facilities, including FWS state offices, states' natural resource agencies, and FWS's voluntary interim guidelines--and any subsequent revisions--on avoiding and minimizing wildlife impacts from wind turbines.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based on GAO recommendations, FWS has developed consistent communication about a range of issues associated with wind energy projects and wildlife impacts, and has provided this communication through a number of conferences and meetings and information available on its public website. For example, FWS sponsored a June 2006 regional conference in the Great Lakes area that addressed wildlife impacts of wind power development. The conference was, in part, targeted at and attended by state and local regulators. At other conferences and meetings, FWS alerted regulators to the effects of wind development on wildlife about informing them of the availability of expert agency staff, such as migratory bird specialists in FWS field offices. Also, FWS has assisted a number of states in developing guidelines for wind power including California, Colorado, New York, and Ohio. In October 2007, the Secretary established a Federal Advisory Committee to provide advice and recommendations on developing effective measures to avoid or minimize impacts to wildlife and their habitats related to land-based wind energy facilities. The Committee has met over 10 times and produced a number of documents that FWS has posted on its publicly available website. These documents include several draft versions of the Committee's recommendations to the Secretary that will be used to replace FWS's 2003 interim guidelines to avoid and minimize impacts to wildlife from wind energy projects with final national recommendations. The recommendations are intended to be used by all prospective developers of wind energy projects and to serve as a useful, suggested management approach for state and local officials. The draft recommendations outline the nature of the information needed to identify, assess, mitigate, and monitor the potential adverse effects of wind energy projects on birds and bats. The recommendations should help industry make the best decisions regarding siting, design, and operation of wind facilities; ensure regulatory agencies are aware of and consider the factors that present risks to birds and bats; and specifies the types and amount of baseline information needed for adequate review of a wind energy project. In addition, the Committee issued a legal white paper in October 2008 on the authority of various wildlife laws to protect wildlife and habitat and regulate the impact of land-based wind energy; the consequences of noncompliance; and the means by which an individual or entity can avoid or reduce liability and avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse effects on wildlife and habitat under these laws. Other documents posted by the Committee provide state-by-state descriptions of wind power guidance or protocols in use and how wildlife laws are applied to wind power.

    Recommendation: Given the potential for future cumulative impacts to wildlife species due to wind power and the limited expertise or experience that local and state regulators may have in this area, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the FWS to develop consistent communication for state and local wind power regulators. This communication should alert regulators to any additional information that FWS deems appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 23, 2014

Sep 22, 2014

Sep 19, 2014

Sep 15, 2014

Sep 12, 2014

Sep 9, 2014

Aug 11, 2014

Jul 28, 2014

Jul 16, 2014

Jul 15, 2014

Looking for more? Browse all our products here