To most people, utility poles and power lines are just another part of the Western landscape. Not to Montana falconer Kirk Hohenberger; he sees power lines as death traps for hawks, eagles and falcons.
"I've seen four of my own
falcons electrocuted," says Hohenberger. "I reported the poles to
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But they never called me back
or demanded that the local utility company fix the poles - which,
by law, they must."
Hohenberger's story is an
example of a much larger problem. Bird advocates say the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service, charged with protecting birds of prey, has
only slapped the hands of electric utilities responsible for power
lines that kill thousands of birds each year. But now, Hohenberger
and a few vocal experts within the agency are pushing electric
utilities to fix the problem.
"Once I understood
how persistent the problem was, I couldn't drive down a highway and
look at utility poles the same way," says Leo Swazo, a raptor
collision and electrocution program coordinator with the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service in Denver.
From 1978 to
1998, the agency recorded a total of 2,060 raptor deaths in
Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and the Dakotas. Half of the
birds were electrocuted. Seventy-five percent of the electrocuted
birds were golden eagles.
The National Eagle
Repository for Native Americans, which collects dead eagles for
tribal ceremonies, received 465 eagles in five months between
October 1997 and February 1998. One-quarter of the birds had been
"Add in the number of raptors never
found, never reported, consumed by scavengers or that naturally
decompose beneath a utility pole," says Swazo, "and it becomes
obvious that our numbers don't fully reflect the extent of the
The Endangered Species Act, the
Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Eagle Protection Act all protect
raptors. Utilities that don't fix lines that kill eagles face fines
of $200,000 to $500,000.
But only once has the
Fish and Wildlife Service fined a utility company for failing to
fix poles that had repeatedly killed raptors. And the cost of
making poles raptor-safe is nothing to sneeze at: building wooden
perches, insulating transformers and reconfiguring wires can cost
upwards of $150 per pole.
It costs much less - $8
to $12 per pole - to make new poles safe for birds, says Colorado
engineer and raptor expert Rick Harness, and raptor-friendly pole
designs have been around for over 20 years. Nevertheless, most new
poles installed worldwide are unsafe for raptors, and millions of
existing poles remain
Raptors are beginning to receive better
treatment around the West, "albeit at a snail's pace," says Swazo,
who helped push through a major electrical overhaul at the Rocky
Mountain Arsenal near Boulder, Colo.
Once an EPA
Superfund Site, the arsenal is now a National Wildlife Refuge. The
U.S. military spent $94,000 rewiring and de-energizing lines and
building perches, completely eliminating raptor
Some utilities, like western
Colorado's rural Delta-Montrose Electric Association, have also
been receptive to solving the problem. "We allocate $3,000 annually
to fix poles that have harmed raptors," says spokesman John Sulkey.
"At the request of a local landowner, we just spent nearly $4,000
adding perches and changing wire configurations. And that was
preventative medicine; no raptors had been killed."
In Montana, utility linemen who once knocked
down osprey nests have become "surrogate mothers' to the birds and
have spearheaded school programs that build nesting platforms and
monitor osprey populations. In Tucson, Ariz., the municipal utility
has changed and insulated hundreds of transformers to protect
It's not enough for falconer
Hohenberger. "So far, I've only seen Band-Aid solutions," he says.
Hohenberger argues that the industry needs to standardize new poles
and stop putting up poles that can harm birds. He is working with
Swazo, Harness and Western Power to put together a video to teach
utility companies about birds, and how to design raptor-friendly
"Guys all through the industry are not
aware of the problem, and they need to be," says Hohenberger. "It's
a huge killer of birds."
But a transition from
wood to metal poles is providing bird advocates with a new set of
opportunities and challenges. "Steel prices are dropping, suitable
trees are becoming scarce and metal poles have some characteristics
superior to wood that engineers desire," explains Harness. "But
metal poles conduct electricity differently than wood."
Last summer, Harness joined raptor
conservationists and utility engineers in assembling a mock utility
line with metal poles. They released several raptors and watched
them negotiate the structures. "The birds' behaviors informed us of
appropriate designs," says Harness. "If their needs are
accommodated as technology changes, then raptors will benefit. If
not, we could see even more birds electrocuted."
J.T. Thomas is a former
HCN intern who now bides his time between Paonia, Colo., and
* Kirk Hohenberger,
* Leo Swazo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, Lakewood, Colo., 303/274-3564;