The connection between wind power and raptors is surprisingly complex. Wind power generation stations, or “farms”, offer renewable, low-pollution energy and are an important tool for combating the climate crisis. However, these wind farms have a number of environmental consequences, including killing an estimated 681,000 birds/year in the United States alone in 2021. Given the peculiarities of their bodies and behavior, birds of prey (and birds that migrate at night) are more prone to colliding with the blades of wind turbines than other species.
At The Altai Project, we are currently focused on insufficiently-regulated siting and development of wind farms in Kazakhstan and Russia. These nations lie within the Western Circum-Himalayan Migration Corridor (WCHMC), a route described by ornithologists. Birds of prey travel this route to migrate from their nesting grounds in central Russia and Central Asia, through the Himalayas, into their wintering grounds in the Indian subcontinent. The Steppe eagle, Greater spotted eagle, and Eastern imperial eagle are among the birds of prey that migrate through the WCHMC.
Kazakhstan’s southeastern Karatau Ridge and its narrow valley form a bottleneck along this flyway – recent research shows that a significant percentage of these raptors pass this way in spring and fall. RRRCN research over the last decade obtained by studying eagles wearing small GPS tracker “backpacks” and visual observations show that 18% of tagged birds passing through Karatau fly at altitudes that are on a collision course with wind turbines at the Zhanatasskaya Wind Station. This 100-megawatt wind farm began operations in 2019, unfortunately without a meaningful assessment of its impact on birds of prey in this busy migration route. We see this challenge with wind power around the world – these geographic bottlenecks are preferred by both wind power producers and birds for their steady wind.
Compounding the wind power and raptors challenge is the lack of effective legislation in Kazakhstan to regulate the siting of wind farms to minimize negative impacts on biodiversity, especially raptors. By contrast, the European Union and Canada have legislative guidelines, as does the United States, although in the US, pre-construction survey requirements for wind farms vary greatly from state to state. Kazakhstan’s legislative document on the planning of wind farms, issued in 2015, does not regulate construction in key biodiversity areas, nor does it formulate requirements to reduce the negative impact of wind farms on birds.
Outside Kazakhstan, several measures have been proposed and tested to reduce bird fatalities related to wind farms, such as shorter periods of operation; i.e., suspending turbine operations during periods which birds are most numerous and vulnerable, such as the spring and fall migration periods. Equipping wind turbines with automatic acoustic and video collision warning systems are other options for reducing collisions by birds. Vertical axis turbines (which lack rotating blades), which may potentially be less harmful to birds, are also being studied.
Drawing from our work in Russia, The Altai Project is now taking action in Kazakhstan to protect raptors. In May 2022 we launched a comprehensive project to address threats of power line electrocution, collisions with wind turbines, and other threats to at-risk birds of prey. Specifically, we will:
- research vulnerable raptor species, studying population status and migratory patterns and documenting threats and other management challenges;
- make policy recommendations for the siting of new facilities and work to mitigate the impacts of existing wind farms; and
- educate relevant government agencies, energy producers, and the conservation community as a whole about ways to ensure that renewable energy production is as safe as possible for wildlife while still remaining profitable for the energy industry.