By Sharon Wootton
Snow geese by the thousands and trumpeter swans by the dozens have returned to Snohomish and Skagit counties for the winter.
Coyotes, vehicles and hunters will be responsible for most of their deaths, but there is another danger: Power lines, and death by electrocution or collision.
The first reported eagle death by powerline was recorded in 1922 in the Midwest. In the 1970s, concerns about increasing deaths reached a tipping point and environmental regulations began to address the problem.
Motivated by the U.S. Department of Fish &Wildlife, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and pressure from environmental groups, power companies developed avian protection plans and made changes to modify their infrastructure in some areas to lower bird mortality.
It’s difficult to, with absolute certainty, compare numbers of deaths from year to year locally or nationally. The Avian Bird Conservancy says that millions of birds are thought to die each year from interacting with power lines.
Snohomish County PUD and Puget Sound Energy provide energy to much of Western Washington.
Efforts to reduce avian deaths include wood pole-top caps, insulator covers, bird-flight diverters, insulated wires, perch deterrents and more distance between wires.
The Stanwood is an area of concern, said PUD environmental affairs manager Christoph Enderlein, because farm fields and crops tilled under attract feeding trumpeter swans. They may take off or land in low-light conditions and collide with power lines.
“We’ve installed bird flight diverters on each of the wires to make them more visible for birds (and) constantly make modifications.”
Sometimes geography makes a difference.
In eagle country in the Rockport area, there have been no reports of electrocuted eagles, according to PSE, because eagles use trees, not power poles.
An osprey nest on top of a pole can lead to bird deaths and sparks that could cause a fire. Rather than remove a Gold Bar nest, the PUD put up a second set of crossarms below the nest and transferred the electrical wire.
“You can make a case for significant modification such as changing or replacing crossarms because a death could lead to taking a line out of service, grounding, replacing and reenergizing. That’s a cost to the district plus it impacts customers,” Enderlein said.
This year the PUD has had 18 incidents of deaths, including three by collision.
In 1999, a Colorado power company was ordered to pay $100,000 in fines and restitution, and ordered to retrofit their lines with bird-safety devices after being found guilty of violating the MBTA and the Bald and Golden Eagle Act.
This raised the profile of the issue and sent a strong (and financial) message to utilities around the country.
In 2000, PSE began to track and record bird-caused outages.
Mel Waters, wildlife biologist for Puget Sound Energy, said the company has systematically been installing protective devices as well as using different pole designs.
“Laws protect birds, and that’s the right thing to do. But we can’t do everything at once. People would complain about electric rates,” Walters said.
“But taking (killing intentionally or by accident) is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But environmental laws don’t always have teeth to them. PSE is happy to say we’re trying to do the right thing,” Walters said.
“Our progressive model is a model program for the state. Our advantage is that we’re big enough and can have a full-time person working on those issues,” he said.
PSE responds to 200 to 250 incidents a year. So how cost-effective is prevention? A service response to a bird-caused outage costs PSE $1,000 to 3,000, not to mention losing a $60,000 transformer.
After a cost-effective analysis, Canadian power companies are protecting all substations.
“In America, people don’t always do what makes sense in long run. We need to look at the long run. PSE has bought into that approach,” Walters said.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.