Can Whitetails and Windmills Coexist?

Can Whitetails and Windmills Coexist?

I was confused when I first saw the roads carved into the bean fields, perturbed when I heard the extra-long flatbeds hauling down the road, and downright bummed when I witnessed the previously undisturbed agricultural lands being swarmed by packs of orange vested workers. As windmills were erected throughout my hunting neighborhood, I couldn’t help but feel like a squadron of alien spaceships had descended from space to occupy my once pastoral paradise.

Now, I’m as onboard with keeping the planet healthy as just about anyone you’ll meet—and renewable energy sources like wind and solar certainly fit that bill. But with those renewables now right out my window, I’m experiencing some reservations. They call this being NIMBY (not in my backyard), and I am guilty as charged. But it’s not just the scenery I’m worried about. I’m wondering about the impact of all of this development on the turkeys and the pheasants and the turtles and, most of all, the deer. More selfishly, what about my deer hunting?

Renewable energy development has rapidly expanded its footprint over the last decade, and recently passed legislation is guaranteed to catalyze growth in this sector at an even higher rate. While there will surely be widespread benefits to this cleaner energy, a more on-the-ground question now stands before us. Can whitetails, all the other wildlife we cherish, and hunting coexist alongside the massive solar and wind development that’s coming to our nation’s last wild places?

Why It’s Happening

While climate change has been a political bogeyman for more than three decades, the reality of a warming world has moved beyond political entrenchment, with not only democrats and independents viewing this as a real issue but also an ever-growing number of republicans. Take, for example, the climate plan developed by House Republican Kevin McCarthy’s “energy, climate, and conservation task force.” The proposed solutions to climate change vary wildly across the political spectrum, but the issue itself has moved from being up for debate to simply a matter of fact. By virtue of that and the quickly falling costs of wind and solar technologies, renewable energy development has been on the upswing for more than a decade.

With the recent signing of the Inflation Reduction Act, there will be an even more rapid deployment of this infrastructure in the near future. To reach the aggressive goals that some have proposed for decarbonizing America by 2050, one set of estimates from Princeton University found that the US will need up to 17 million acres in additional lands developed for solar farms and an additional 250 million acres in windmill installations. These projections are aggressive and assume a particularly high percentage of new renewable energy to come from solar and wind. But even the Department of Energy’s own estimates point to the development of 5.7 million more acres in solar by 2035, that’s an area the size of more than two full Yellowstone National Parks completely covered in solar panels. Do we really have that kind of space left to give?

Whether you’re on board with this renewable push or not, one thing is for sure. There’s going to be a whole lot more of it, much of it across public lands or otherwise open country, and it’s going to happen fast. As part of the recent Inflation Reduction Act negotiations, an agreement was made to pass further legislation fast-tracking the permitting process for these and other energy projects. Ostensibly this all means cleaner energy faster, but there is a real risk of wildlife and wild landscapes being forgotten along the way. I’m in favor of just about any initiative that will benefit our planet, and I’m glad this cleaner energy is on the way, but it’s important we don’t destroy the very thing we’re trying to save (ie. wildlife, wild places, open space) in the process.

The Wildlife Impact

Solar and wind energy projects vary in scale and specifics, but it’s clear that their development can impact wildlife just as the development of traditional fossil fuel extraction sites has in the past. Not only do the installations themselves directly impact wildlife, but the new roads, increased vehicular traffic, and new human activity can change or block traditional wildlife behaviors and travel too.

The negative impacts of solar farms, in particular those sited in previously undeveloped lands, are obvious if you’ve ever seen one. These landscapes, once used for agriculture or left as open space, typically become fenced in and almost completely covered in solar panels—negating almost any wildlife value and blocking the majority of small and large mammal travel. According to one analysis, “operators of these installations are generally keen to cut the costs of construction and maintenance, so most solar facilities replace the existing land cover with graded packed dirt, gravel, or mowed grass, further harming local biodiversity.” If that’s not enough, there is also evidence of direct bird and insect mortality as a result of the panels themselves and changes in the light and heat they produce.

While the physical footprint of wind farms are unfenced and somewhat small compared to the viewscape they affect, there are well-documented examples of windmills killing or disturbing migrating bird and bat populations, as well as evidence that the increased land disturbance can negatively impact other species such as sage grouse and prairie chickens.

While there have been relatively few studies on the impact of wind projects on large mammals, the results so far are inconclusive, pointing mostly to negligible impacts from direct habitat disturbance. But, according to the Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute, “functional habitat loss” might be the larger concern. This occurs when “animals avoid using otherwise suitable habitat around wind energy infrastructure. This kind of habitat loss can occur even if native vegetation is undisturbed. Displacement can occur if animals are disturbed by the presence of humans, by loud noises associated with construction, or even by the sight and sound of increased vehicle traffic or operating turbines. Animals might also be displaced if they associate elements of infrastructure with danger.” It doesn’t take much of a mental leap to imagine how something like this might impact whitetails, mule deer, or pronghorn.

It’s important to note that any and all energy development comes with the possibility of negative impacts to wildlife and wild places. We've been fighting these same battles to minimize the damage done by mining, fossil fuel extraction, and the like for decades. The case isn’t being made here that energy development is bad, simply that it can be conducted in relatively bad ways and in the wrong places if we’re not careful.

The Hunting Impact

So what’s all this mean for my hunting and yours? I recently conducted an informal survey of deer hunters within my network who hunt near renewable energy developments to assess the impacts they’ve felt so far.

First and foremost, fenced solar installations were universally despised, being described as “wildlife dead zones” and “completely altering deer movement.” I saw one of these locations pop up just down the road from another property I used to hunt in southern Michigan. What was once a green alfalfa field filled each evening with deer and turkeys was now a high-fenced industrial site with nary a critter in sight. Passing by, I frequently felt pity for whoever used to spend time hunting, hiking, or generally exploring the area prior. It was less than a shell of its former self.

Wind farms on the other hand seem to get more mixed reviews. The negative effects described by those responding to my survey were most felt during the installation phase when construction crews and service workers were in the area most. “They don’t impact the deer at all,” stated one hunter. “But the windmills are noisy as hell.” Another hunter explained that “the first year they got put in it was rough. But since then it hasn’t been an issue.” These statements were reinforced by another hunter who said “they can be loud, but overall they don’t bother the deer anymore.”

The windmills in my area fortunately never made it to the properties I actually hunt, although the deer in the area are certainly spending time on neighboring farms where development is present. To this point, I’ve yet to see direct impacts on deer activity or my hunting, but in less tangible ways I’ve felt their presence.

In what used to be a black hole of sky each night, I’m now encircled by red flashing lights. Where I used to hear nothing but singing crickets and chirping birds, I now notice a constant low drone. Where there used to be nothing but green fields and falling orange leaves, there are now towering white monuments to technological progress.

I realize this has relatively little significance in the grand scheme of things, but it's not nothing.

What We Can Do

We are losing open space and wild places at an alarming rate across the world, with one report putting the number at two million acres lost every year just in America. Wildlife populations, outside of a handful of superstar species, are increasingly threatened or declining. And yes, whether we like the politics of it or not, our climate is changing too. All of this paints an uncertain picture for the future. We do need clean renewable energy. But we also need wild creatures and wild places. The renewable energy snowball is on its way down the mountain, there’s no stopping it. But we’d be wise as a hunting and fishing community to do our best to steer it in the right direction.

Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, a coalition comprised of conservation organizations like the National Deer Association, TRCP, and the National Wildlife Federation (among others), has already begun laying the groundwork for how this can be done. We as an outdoor community can join the cause by staying vigilant over the coming years and leveraging our voices to ensure that renewable energy is sited properly, reviewed carefully, and developed in as wildlife friendly a way as possible.

The key word here is can. The bigger question is if we will. This is the beginning of what will likely be a decades-long responsibility. I’m confident we’re ready for the job.

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