Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Is This an Audubon Society Payoff Scandal?

Recently I received a chain email that the Audubon Society accepted millions of dollars to change their anti-wind farm stance and allow the erection of wind turbines to destroy bird populations. It was explained in the header:

"The Massachusetts Audubon Society ("MA Audubon") has been opposing the project from the beginning. They estimated that the turbines may kill up to 6,600 birds per year.

The controversy arose when MA Audubon changed their minds. They announced they would support the project on the condition that millions of dollars be spent to mitigate the ecological impact. As mitigation includes the monitoring of bird mortality and bird behaviour by ornithologists, this immediately led to suspicions of a conflict of interest."
If this were true it would be a little like CUSO taking a payoff to endorse the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor's policy of chopping off of hands of civilians in Sierra Leone. Or endorsing the bombing of native villages in the Sudan to clear the way for oil drilling. The Audubon payoff was not debunked on Snopes (as far as I could tell) so I had to investigate on my own.

First, to clear up a position. The Audubon Society has determined that while wind farms may kill some wildlife, they are a net benefit, based on our need to produce electricity in a way that does not promote global warming. And the Audubon Society also believes that global warming is a real threat, not a gigantic hoax cooked up by tree huggers. Which happens to match my own views, and those of my local Field Naturalists Club.

The timing of this "change of mind" and Payoff is not clear. But as of July 2005 (after the Feb. 2005 estimate of 6,600), the Massachusetts Audubon Society supported wind power. (I have the link below) As far as I know, all field naturalists clubs support the use of wind power.


In my opinion it is actually Exxon and the other oil companies that are fighting wind power with a well funded PR campaign, supported by conservative interests (for example, Harper, the PM from Canada's oil province, and Bush, the president from Texas). Here is a link to an article about the payoffs to climate change deniers.

This allegation about the Mass Audubon Society is illogical. It is based on the false assumption that Mass Audubon is a for-profit organization, with the power to grant or deny permits for wind turbines. It is actually a non-profit organization of enthusiasts that was asked to do studies on wind projects. The reason they get asked is because of their credibility as a non-profit organization, with a huge membership of people who know a lot about nature.

Mary Ann is an active member in the Kitchener-Waterloo field Naturalists club, which is similar to the Audubon society, in other words, a non-profit organization dedicated to birdwatching, and observing nature. Similar to the Audubon Society, they have no regulatory authority to stop wind turbines, but they are often asked to do environmental studies for a wide variety of reasons, including building and road construction. As a non-profit organization, they are not even allowed to make money (as in a profit), or they would lose their non-profit status. Greed and desire for money is totally absent in field naturalists clubs, from what I have seen. (While greed is the driving force of corporations, as they endlessly remind us)

The Audubon society is obviously concerned about bird deaths, but they are also concerned about global warming.

If we go back to about 2003 or so, there was a debate among all field naturalist groups, Audubon included, who were concerned about the impact of the new wind farms on bird population. That debate has long been resolved, and as far as I know, all field naturalists are pretty much in agreement, that although the turbines may kill some birds, it has to be balanced against global warming, which is already making entire species (of animals/birds/insects etc.) extinct. They are looking at the long term species survival. They are more aware than most people that lots of birds die all the time from cars, hunting, predators, cats, disease, tall buildings, starvation, even natural death.

The location of the first wind turbines caused a severe problem killing hawks because the towers were located on bluffs. The way hawks travel is by seeking out thermals (upward wind currents), then circling repeatedly gaining height each time, until they reach enough height that they can glide to the next thermal. So hawks will actually migrate along ridges, (which create thermal up currents) stopping to circle each time they need to gain height. If the turbines are placed right where the hawks stop to circle, the blades will kill a lot of them as they migrate. Hawks migrate in a very narrow flight path, and they circle where the winds are strongest. As long as the blades are not placed right in a migratory thermal updraft, the number of kills is acceptable.

There is a place called Hawk Cliff near Port Stanley on Lake Erie, where thousands of hawks can be seen circling at migration times. It is a spectacular sight, well known to local birdwatchers. If you place a turbine right there, it will cause a major slaughter in the spring and the fall. Yet new turbines have gone up on the lake Erie shore, placed in such a way that the hawks will not be circling around the blades, and very few are killed. Less than by local car traffic, for example.

Bird watchers are well aware of the behaviours of various birds, and are an excellent resource to advise on the location of wind turbines.

The killing of bats is another issue, which I do not have the current answer for. Apparently turbines kill a lot of bats, and it may be either where they roost, or how they hunt insects by sonar. I know a lot of people are looking in to the problem. And our local field naturalists club does watch bats, and in fact they own a bat detector which is used for outings to observe bats.

I don't have any proof that the Massachusetts Audubon Society did not take a payoff of millions of dollars to support the wind farms. But from what I know already about non-profit organizations, and the fact that the Audubon society early on decided to support wind turbines, and specifically, the Massachusetts Audubon was supporting wind turbines in 2005, I would say this story sounds false.

Picture: I took it this this morning along the Grand River. It's a hawk sitting really near, but I have a cheap point and shoot camera, not one of those monster zoom lenses. I was on an outing with the KW Field Naturalists, and they said it was a one year old Red-Tailed hawk, and they spotted it way on the other side of the river and waited for it to come over.


  1. Mass Audubon's position and actions on the Cape Wind Project have been the subject of scurrilous attacks that have no merit or basis in fact. The attacks can be summarized in three general categories - the categories and our responses follow:

    1) Mass Audubon has accepted no or promise of money in exchange for its position of conditional support for the Cape Wind project and anyone claiming this has never presented evidence to back such a claim – innuendo is not evidence. Mass Audubon has never formally opposed Cape Wind, but we did ask that the project be extensively reviewed, and we submitted our concerns with the first Draft Environmental Impact Statement [DEIS] prepared by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the reviewing agency, as part of the public comment process.

    2) Mass Audubon is a nonprofit environmental conservation organization. We are not a "permit reviewing agency", an agency, a government entity, or a private business. We are a nonprofit organization that has commented on all aspects of the proposed project through the public comment process, just as individual citizens and our peer organizations have. Our participation does not corrupt the public review process.

    3) Mass Audubon did not conclude that the Cape Wind Project would kill 6000+ birds per year, and this point is clearly expressed in the letter signed by Mass Audubon President Laura Johnson and the supporting technical comment letter in our response to the Army Corps DEIS (http://www.massaudubon.org/PDF/CapeWindDEIS.pdf and http://www.massaudubon.org/PDF/CapeWindDEISTechCom.pdf ). The relevant paragraph from Laura Johnson's signed letter of February 23rd, 2005 follows and should be read in full:

    page 9, full paragraph 2:

    "There are insufficient data concerning the movements of birds through the area, especially at night and during foul weather conditions, as well as the number of birds, e.g., winter waterfowl, flying through the rotor swept zone in the project area. The collision risk analysis is seriously deficient and should be redone. The conclusion reached in the DEIS/EIR that the project is likely to cause approximately 364 bird deaths per year due to collisions is not supportable. By utilizing other bird mortality data provided in the DEIS, Mass Audubon staff scientists arrived at avian mortalities that ranged from 2,300 to 6,600 collision deaths per year. Our estimates are intended to be illustrative of some of the potential alternative approaches that could be applied in estimating collision risk. We do not claim that our results are definitive, and we recognize that a wide range of projections may be derived through application of a variety of methodologies. The Corps should further evaluate the potential range of collision risks."

    Mass Audubon conducted extensive avian research since 2002 to provide support for our own environmental review and to contribute to the review by the Corps and MMS. We independently raised funds to pay for the cost of boat and airplane charter and gave the results of our work to the agencies at no cost. Today we are conducting satellite telemetry work to better understand the use of Nantucket Sound by Long-tailed Ducks. The results of this research and all our research are available at this web site http://www.massaudubon.org/wind/avian_research.php. Our current position on Cape Wind reflects the careful analysis of our extensive research as well as the work of others.

    For more information regarding Mass Audubon's position on Cape Wind, and wind energy more broadly, please visit: http://www.massaudubon.org/wind

    Respectfully Submitted,

    Taber D. Allison, Ph. D., Vice President for Science, Policy, and Climate Change

  2. The Audubon Society's position on wind energy is abundantly clear, to anyone willing to invest two minutes to research it.

    I participate in a number of discussion groups and find I spend an inordinate amount of time debunking misinformation other participants have received in chain emails and have forwarded without doing any checking.

    This, I suppose, is part of the price we must pay for the benefits of living in an 'information society.'

    Now, as far as the issue, itself, of bird kills and wind farms ... the 'bottom line' is simply that every form of energy we use takes a greater or lesser toll on the species with which we coexist.

    It would be nice if wind turbines did not kill birds. So, too, would it be nice if we did not have to tear up and poison habitat to extract fossil fuels, did not pollute our air and water by operating coal fired generating plants, &c., &c., &c.

    Wind farms are simply a lesser evil, as any adequately informed individual will realize. One must question the motivations of the originators of chain emails such as the one in question.

  3. Thanks for your response. As I have already stated in my blog, I thought it was highly unlikely that the Audubon society would or even could be paid off to support the slaughter of birds. And your response is in full support of my argument, and takes it even further.

    Although I have no way of verifying your statements, I am of the opinion that mass emails tend to be the weapon of choice when it comes to spreading false and damaging information. In blogs, you can often see both sides being argued, and occasionally an apology when it turns out that accusations are false. Email retractions are rare, and largely ineffective due to their distribution pattern.