Wild collisions


Driving in the rural West is a blood sport. During the spring and summer, it’s all I can do to avoid squashing the prairie dogs and rabbits drawn to the weeds along the asphalt, as they invariably dart the wrong way at the last moment. Almost every day I encounter the fresh carcass of a skunk, fox or raccoon, mowed down the night before by unsuspecting drivers. (“What was that thump?”)

In fall and winter, it’s deer and elk, pushed down from the high country by hunters and changing weather. Somehow I’ve avoided a head-on collision, but I once clipped a muley’s back foot as it bounded like a high-jumper over the hood. Last week, a small flock of mountain bluebirds swooped in front of my truck as I drove to the grocery store. I braked, hoping they had all somehow eluded my grill. But in the rearview mirror, I watched a sky-colored male tumble like a ball across the road. “Damn it,” I muttered, “another ‘incidental take.’ ”

That’s the formal term wildlife agencies use for cases in which a protected wild animal is unintentionally killed. From a legal standpoint, it means that I, and all the other drivers on the road, will be pardoned; we have no liability if we collide with, and kill, a species of federally protected frog — or a grizzly, for that matter. After all, we didn’t mean to do it.

But should large industrial developers get off the hook so easily, especially if scientists clearly show that their business practices are killing wildlife? That’s one of the questions raised by Judith Lewis Mernit’s cover story on how some determined ecologists are seeking to hold large-scale Western wind and solar facilities responsible for the birds they attract and kill. Over the past several decades, ecologist Shawn Smallwood has single-mindedly researched such avian deaths. The results are disquieting, not only because they demonstrate the considerable environmental trade-offs we are making for the sake of clean power, but because of the way some in the industry reacted to his findings — with disinformation campaigns and personal attacks.

Executive director and publisher Paul Larmer

Just shoot the messenger: It’s an often-used page from the playbook of many extractive industries. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Smallwood’s efforts have actually helped the wind industry; despite its initial resistance, it’s now embracing large, slow-turning turbine blades and careful site selection to minimize the carnage. It’s high time for Big Solar and its state and federal regulators to do the same, before any new plans are approved in the Mojave Desert.

No one is entirely guilt-free when it comes to the “incidental taking” of wildlife. But we can reduce the carnage, partly by reducing our consumption of energy, or producing our own, so that new power plants are unnecessary. And we can also just slow the hell down as we drive the West’s marvelous back roads.

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