Wind energy: helping to eliminate air pollution, a major threat to bird life

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

When I first read about the plight of the bald eagles in Fisherville, like everyone else I was initially outraged. How could someone disturb the nest of a species that’s endangered? It certainly can’t be legal?

As a supporter of the environment I could not believe that the Ministry of Natural Resources would allow such a travesty against nature.

Like so many others, I remember the annihilation of bald eagles caused by DDT. This chemical caused severe reproduction problems, leaving eagles without offspring for the next generation. And that since the early 1980’s they’ve been on the endangered species list.

But how are they doing today? Turns out, they’re doing much better than anyone expected.

On June 28, 2007 the United States de-listed Bald Eagles as an endangered species in the lower 48 states. It was re-assigned a risk level of “least concern” on the IUCN Red list. Canada followed the American lead in 2009, moving eagles from endangered, to a species of “special concern”. However this new designation only applies to northern and southern Ontario, as the species is not at risk nationally.

The removal from the endangered species list was prompted by much better breeding and mortality rates. During the period from 1990 to 1998 the minimum number of active nests in Ontario rose by 65%, from 719 to 1,193 (Grier et al, 2003). North western Ontario can now boast that the Lake of the Woods area habitat is saturated with Bald Eagles and is at its natural carrying capacity (Grier et al, 2003).

Nest productivity has increased and some standing reproduction records have hit new highs since recording began in 1980. 2011 set new records for highest number of occupied territories, highest number of nesting pairs, and the most successfully fledged young in Ontario.

The Canadian Bird Atlas reads, “The Bald Eagle has experienced a substantially expanded range and increased population since the first atlas was published, with significant increases in the probability of observation in all regions, and an almost fourfold increase across Ontario”.

Things are looking much better for eagles today than 30 years ago. But they can still get better. While doing this research I found there is another threat to the reproductive cycle of Bald Eagles. Ontario’s Bald Eagles are now being held back by contamination from heavy metals, chiefly mercury and lead.

“Long term exposure to mercury can limit the eagles’ reproductive capabilities, alter their behavior, impair their foraging abilities, increase their risk to disease, and even result in death.”

The single largest source of mercury pollution today is through the use of coal for electrical generation. Every year in the United States alone, over 42 tons of mercury is released by coal plants into the atmosphere, contaminating the air we breathe and the water we drink. Fully 42% of mercury emissions in the US come from coal plants. Ontario’s coal plants are no better. Wind energy is helping Ontario to replace dirty coal with clean, emissions-free power.

In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have been upset with the wind developer. Maybe I should have said thank you. Not only did they care enough to relocate the nest farther from a potential source of danger, they’ve agreed to install additional artificial nests, and their wind development is helping put an end to coal fired electrical generation. And the end of coal is good for every living creature in Ontario, especially Bald Eagles.

All energy production must be developed in a responsible manner, and wind energy is no different. But when taken in the broader context of measuring impacts to wildlife and humans, wind is a good choice.

Don Lesko