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Ducks and Energy

Development of new energy sources could have significant impacts on North America’s waterfowl.
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In Canada, the growing season in much of the PPR is too short for corn production, so winter wheat is being used to make ethanol. This crop, which is usually planted directly into residual stubble and left relatively undisturbed in spring, provides more secure nesting cover for ducks, including pintails. As a result, DU and partners are working with farmers to expand the acreage of winter wheat grown in the PPR. 

Ducks may also benefit from the use of “biomass crops” like switchgrass for ethanol production, provided these crops are managed in a way that meets the needs of nesting ducks. The devil is in the details. To benefit waterfowl, biomass crops must be grown near wetlands that attract breeding pairs, harvested after nesting ducks have hatched their broods, and cut high enough during harvest that sufficient residual vegetation is left for nesting birds to use the following spring. DU biologists are presently working with industry leaders to develop “best management practices” for biomass energy crops that will help maximize potential benefits for nesting waterfowl.

Concerns about the Unknown

The impacts other types of energy production will have on waterfowl populations have yet to be determined. Wind power certainly falls in this category. The potential effects of wind farms are likely to be site specific and dependent on the type of technology used. Past research examining bird mortality from small, densely packed wind generators mounted on lattice towers has little relevance to the large, widely spaced wind turbines being built today on the Great Plains. And offshore wind farms that could impact migrating and wintering sea ducks are clearly different than wind-power developments in the heart of the PPR. One thing we do know is that new transmission lines will be needed to move electricity from wind farms to consumers. Ducks and other birds inevitably fly into power lines, so it stands to reason that when more power lines are built, duck mortality will increase. Will that result in population-level effects on waterfowl? The answer depends on how many lines are built and where they are located.

Oil, the single biggest source of the world’s energy, is another issue altogether. New drilling techniques and transportation systems are environmentally safer than ever. But other impacts do occur. In the exploratory phase, seismic lines crisscross sensitive ecosystems like the western boreal forest, fragmenting the landscape and altering wetland hydrology. During the extraction phase, construction of drilling pads and access roads compounds these impacts. And while industry strives to make oil extraction and transport as safe as possible, accidents can still occur. How would a failure of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, now showing its age after 32 years, affect vital duck breeding habitat in the state? Will the environmental footprint of oil facilities on Alaska’s North Slope be enough to displace breeding waterfowl there? And would new offshore drilling result in oil spills that could damage coastal wetlands used by millions of wintering ducks? The answers are unknown, but the risks are real.

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