Feds move to protect birds from oil pits and power lines

Planned regulations come as many Western migratory species experience steep declines.


The federal Fish and Wildlife Service is considering new regulations to try to reduce the risks to migratory birds from the oil and gas industry, power lines and communications towers.

Pied-billed grebe on an oil-covered evaporation pond at a commercial oilfield wastewater disposal facility.
Pedro Ramirez Jr./USFWS

In Western states, mass deaths of birds have grabbed headlines. But more frequently, the steady death toll, from threats such as tall communications towers, is unseen, as HCN has reported.

The agency is considering additional regulations because of the significant decline of many species of migratory birds, particularly raptors and water birds, which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Declines have been especially sharp among birds that live in arid environments and grasslands, as documented by this HCN story and the State of the Birds report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 

Hazards to migratory birds on the landscape are increasing at the same time that effects of climate change increase risks for many types of birds in a whole range of habitats.

About 8 percent of the 1,027 avian species covered by the Act are also on the federal endangered species list and a quarter are “birds of conservation concern,” which means they likely will be listed in the absence of conservation efforts, according to the agency.

“Every day, countless death traps across America needlessly kill birds in horrible ways, from electrocution to drowning in oil – we’re talking about tens of millions of birds every year,” said National Audubon Society president David Yarnold. “It’s time to end this terrible and unnecessary slaughter.”

Specific risks to birds that might face new regulation by the agency include:

  • Oil, gas and wastewater disposal pits, which can entrap birds that perceive the pits as water sources. The birds die from drowning or exhaustion. Remedies include closing the pits or maintaining netting over the pits. Federal research suggests hundreds of thousands of birds are killed this way each year. 
  • Methane and gas burner pipes at oil production sites, which can burn or trap birds that try to perch nearby. Remedies include installing deterrents, using pipes with smaller openings or covering the pipes.
  • Communications towers endanger migratory birds, especially those flying at night. Remedies include building shorter.
  • Electric transmission and distribution lines kill birds through electrocution and collision. Remedies include special pole designs and siting considerations.

The agency is also considering including the wind power industry in whatever regulation it proposes.

Estimates vary dramatically on how many birds are killed each year from communication towers and power lines, but the federal government is trying to get a better handle on the numbers. To reduce those numbers, the range of options FWS will consider in an upcoming environmental impact statement includes voluntary guidelines, memoranda of understanding with industries and individual permits. For instance, communications towers could be required to install special lighting and reduce the use of guy wires.

Alternately, the industry could step forward and agree to retrofit its towers voluntarily. 

The agency is taking public comment for 60 days. This is just the beginning of what the agency believes will be a long process and it does not yet have a timeline for when it might complete an environmental impact statement or propose a rule. 

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.  

Homepage photograph of snow geese in Allen, Washington, by Flickr user Dana. 

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