Health

Are Wind Turbines a Danger to Wildlife? Ask the Dogs.

Kayla Fratt began preparing for her summer job in March, when a package of frozen bat carcasses arrived for her in the mail. Well, actually, the bats were for her border collies, Barley and Niffler, and it is really their summer job too. They needed to learn the scent of a dead bat, because they would be spending three months on wind farms, looking for bats killed by spinning turbines.

To teach them, Fratt, who worked as a dog trainer before getting into the bat-detection business, began by hiding the carcasses around her living room (in Tupperware, lest their smell linger on the furniture). The dogs soon graduated to hunting for dead bats in the yard, then in parks. Fratt took to carrying bat carcasses around when she left the house with Barley or Niffler, just in case they found themselves with free time to practice in a new location. All three of them reported for duty at a midwestern wind farm earlier this month. When we spoke last week, Fratt told me their orientation was starting the next day. Then, she said, “we hit the ground running.”

Barley and Niffler are just two of the many conservation-detection dogs now employed by the growing wind industry. As turbines proliferate across the country, understanding their effect on wildlife is more important than ever. In the early days of turbines, scientists had focused on the danger they posed to eagles and other raptors—but it turns out those big bird carcasses were simply the easiest for humans to spot.

“Truth was, people are terrible at finding bats and small birds,” says K. Shawn Smallwood, a biologist who has worked on wind farms in California. Smallwood told me he was initially skeptical of using dogs to monitor turbine fatalities, but the data simply blew him away. In one study he conducted, dogs found 96 percent of dead bats, whereas humans found just 6 percent. The canine searchers managed to find baby bats as small as one gram. Other dog handlers sent me photos of bats—or really, bat fragments—that their dogs had managed to sniff out: a shard of a wing, a jawbone the size of a dime. Biologists have long worked with scent-detection dogs to track animals including turtles, black-footed ferrets, and grizzly bears. Now wind farms provide the dogs and their handlers with steady and more predictable work.

Tiny bat bones found by Amanda Janicki’s scent-detection dog, Caffrey (Amanda Janicki)

On wind farms, a patchwork of federal, state, and local regulations might govern how companies have to monitor wildlife deaths, but reporting requirements vary widely. This means that reliable data on deaths are hard to come by. Estimates suggest that turbines in North America kill 600,000 to 949,000 bats and 140,000 to 679,000 birds a year. Dogs are, by far, the quickest and most effective way to find them.

The best dogs for this work are misfits of the pet world. They have to be utterly obsessed with play—to a point that most humans would find exhausting. “All the dogs that we have in our program, they’re either rescues … or they’re an owner surrender, where they just say they’re out of options and even a shelter won’t take them,” says Heath Smith, the director of Rogue Detection Teams, a conservation-detection-dog company. The dogs have too much energy and an “insatiable drive to play fetch,” which is not great for a family pet but very useful for motivating a dog to find birds or bats so they can get their favorite toy as a reward. (Barley, Fratt says, was “a pain in the butt” when he was younger. The work gives him an outlet for all that energy.) Some dogs love their ball, others a rope or squishy toy; one of Smith’s dogs has taken to an empty food bowl that he likes to scoot around.

Still, searching below wind turbines can be hard physical work. A typical day includes 10 miles of walking, says Sarah Jackson, who works with Rogue Detection Teams on a wind farm in Palm Springs, California, where it’s gotten so hot that she’s now searching in the middle of night. Jackson and the three dogs she works with—Lady, Ptero, and Indy—scan two wind turbines a night, walking back and forth over an area equivalent to several football fields. (The dogs get to switch off every hour. She doesn’t.) Others told me of working in the rain and mud. Still, when I spoke with Jackson at 6 a.m. after a long night of searching, she sounded remarkably upbeat. Her hours are odd, and the work is exhausting, but she gets to be around dogs who are so happy to be on the job. “Imagine you have three co-workers in your car and everybody is throwing a party,” she said. That’s what driving to work every day is like.

The dogs make the searching more interesting for humans too. Before she started working with dogs, Wynter Skye Standish, who is currently working on another wind farm in California, had been a human searcher monitoring wildlife on wind farms. That work is monotonous; it’s easy to zone out. Now she’s constantly attuned to her dog—the wag of her tail, the angle of her nose. This partnership taps into the strength of both species: the dogs’ incredible sense of smell, their keen awareness of human social cues, and our own keen awareness of theirs. Standish doesn’t think of herself as a handler with an obedient dog; they are equals on a team.

The people who work with dogs on wind farms tend to be lovers of all animals, so the discovery of a dead bird or bat is bittersweet. The dogs are overjoyed, anticipating a reward for a job well done. On days when there are simply no dead animals, humans might feel relieved for the birds and bats, but the dogs can get really frustrated, says Amanda Janicki, who has worked on Iowa wind farms with her dog, Caffrey. Janicki marvels at his ability to sniff out the tiniest, most hidden bat bones. But she also laments what they mean: The turbines have killed another bat.

Dog walking through wind farm
Caffrey on a wind farm, wearing dog goggles to protect his eyes (Amanda Janicki)
Dog working near wind turbine in a soybean field
Caffrey looking for bats in the fields of soybeans surrounding the wind turbines (Amanda Janicki)

The specific problem of bat deaths at wind turbines first came to biologists’ attention in 2003, when 2,000 bats turned up dead on a West Virginia wind farm. Most bat deaths occur during fall migrations, and they are concentrated among three species: eastern red bats, silver-haired bats, and hoary bats. These bats all roost in trees, and they seem attracted to wind turbines, possibly because the structures look like “the biggest, tallest trees in the landscape,” says Erin Baerwald, a bat scientist at the University of Northern British Columbia.

Scientists have since found that idling turbines under specific conditions—at night, during the bats’ fall migration, and when the wind speed is below 6.5 meters per second (about 14.5 mph)—can sharply curb bat deaths; a promising set of studies also suggests that ultrasonic white noise can keep bats away. But idling the turbines means generating less energy and less revenue; installing sound equipment costs money too. In 2015, the wind industry endorsed, to much fanfare, voluntary guidelines to idle turbines when the wind speed is below a certain cutoff, usually about three meters per second. But Baerwald says this cutoff is too low; besides, it’s entirely voluntary. Government authorities often lack the power to force wind farms to spend money to prevent bat deaths, especially because the three species killed most frequently are not currently endangered.

Wind energy, of course, has clear advantages. It is vital to the U.S.’s ongoing shift to renewable energy, and the resulting decrease in carbon emissions will benefit every creature on the planet, including untold billions of bats. But the specific bats that happen to fly through specific wind farms bear the cost of this energy transition. “It comes down to this existential question: How much is a bat worth?” Baerwald says. And how much money will wind companies give up to save a few hundred thousand bats a year?

When the bat-detection dogs roam around turbines, they are wandering straight into this thicket of questions. In some cases, wind farms—or their regulators—have decided that calculating the loss of life among these wild animals is at least worth the cost of hiring a dog team, which is more expensive than humans alone. The dogs are more thorough, and though they’re not directly saving any bats, they are giving us the most comprehensive picture yet of the problem. Even if they are just in it to play fetch.

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