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Know the West

Power poles make deadly perches


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 electrocuted.

"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 problem."

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 lethal.

Slow progress

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 electrocution.

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 Harris hawks.

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 poles.

"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 McCarthy, Alaska.

You can contact ...

* Kirk Hohenberger, 406/628-6323;

* Leo Swazo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lakewood, Colo., 303/274-3564;

* Rick Harness, 970/224-9100.