News and Such...

Since the successful prosecution of a western utility by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for raptor (birds of prey) electrocutions, a growing number of utilities have expressed concerns about the difficulty in finding reliable information on both the problem and the solutions. To that end, we are in the process of greatly expanding our sections on raptor behavior, construction modifications, and commercially available products. We hope to have this additional information available soon, but in the meantime, let us know if you have any questions or suggestions. This news item was sent along by Rick Harness, Environmental Specialist, EDM, International, Phone: 970/204-4001

This is an update of the September 25, 2000, USGS Wildlife Health Alert (WHA 00-02) on West Nile Virus. Results from a study conducted at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center demonstrated that in a confined experimental setting the West Nile virus can be transmitted from crow-to-crow. It had been thought that the virus was only transmitted through the bite of a mosquito vector.

Nine American crows infected with the West Nile virus were placed into a mosquito-free aviary along with 7 non-infected crows. The 16 birds were housed in a flight room, measuring approximately 16-feet by 20-feet, where they shared food and water and sat on common perches. All of the 9 infected birds died within five to eight days later. The contact control birds began to die five to eight days after the first infected bird died. The West Nile virus was then re-isolated from the contact control birds demonstrating that the virus was transmitted without the presence of a mosquito or other insect vector.

At this time we do not know how the virus moved from bird to bird. However, in an earlier experiment infected and non-infected crows housed in the same room, but in separate cages, showed no evidence of direct transmission of the virus indicating that the virus was not transmitted through the air in the laboratory. Other possible routes of transmission could be through oral contact though preening or feather picking or through contact with food, water, feces or the shared roosting perches.

We want to emphasize that this was a very controlled experiment and we do not know if or how this relates to what is happening in the wild. Crows have been shown to be highly susceptible to the virus and we believe they are more likely to transmit the virus through bird-to-bird contact than other bird species. Mosquitoes are still believed to be the primary means of transmission of the virus between birds and to humans. The threat of humans contracting the virus directly from birds is slim. We are recommending that people wear gloves or use an inverted plastic bag to pick up wildlife found dead of unknown causes.

Refuge and park visitors, as well as employees, should be reminded that there are many diseases that can be transmitted by contact with wildlife and they should wear gloves or use an inverted plastic bag to pick up wildlife found dead of unknown causes. As is the case with all wild game, hunters should be advised to only consume meat that is well cooked, to wear gloves when cleaning game, and to wash hands thoroughly after handling wild game.

West Nile virus (WNV) is an arthropod-borne virus that had never been reported in the Western Hemisphere until the fall of 1999. Wild birds, primarily crows, were affected in last year’s outbreak in the greater New York City area along with several other native North American bird species, horses, and people. This year, wild bird mortality due to WNV was first detected in May 2000 in southeastern New York and northeastern New Jersey. Since then the disease has continued to expand both geographically and in the number and variety of species infected. West Nile virus has been isolated from 64 species of birds, including 53 free-ranging species from 11 states, ranging from Vermont to Virginia and North Carolina. Free-living mammal species in New York were found positive for WNV for the first time this year. The virus has again been detected in 38 horses from 6 states. Eighteen people have been reported as clinically ill from WNV this year with one fatality.

For updates on WNV activities and findings, access this website. A federal judge, District Judge Lewis Babcock, ruled that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act applies to raptor deaths caused by power lines.

"By prohibiting the act of "killing", in addition to the acts of hunting, capturing, shooting, and trapping, the MBTA's language and regulations suggest that Congress intended to prohibit conduct beyond that normally exhibited by hunters and poachers," the judge said.

Penalties for violations under the MBTA are in addition to any penalties for violations under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. January 30, 1999 - For more than 40 minutes, billowing clouds of smoke filled the parking lot at a Marietta, Georgia shopping center. When the flames were finally doused by firefighters, the source of the fire was located at the base of a utility pole. The probable cause is suspected to be a squirrel that crawled into the plastic box covering the wires at the foot of the pole. Squirrels seem to have a particular fondness for the insulation covering the wires and will chew through to the primary wires. Squirrels burrowing into and nesting in utility boxes are a chronic problem in this area, although it is rare for them to actually cause fires.

One store in the shopping center used its on-site generation to keep the lights (and cash registers)on. Employees at several other businesses brought out flaslights during the hour long power outage. Power Poles Make Deadly Perches
- J.T. Thomas, High Country News

To most people, utility poles and power lines are just another part of the Western landscape. Not to Montana falconer Kirk Hohenberger; he sees powerlines as death traps for hawks, eagles, and falcons.

"I've seen four of my own falcons electrocuted," says Hohenberger. "I reported the poles to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But they never called me back or demanded that the local utility company fix the poles - which, by law, the must."

Hohenberger's story is an example of a much larger problem. Bird advocates say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with protecting birds of prey, has only slapped the hands of electric utilities responsible for power lines that kill thousands of birds each year. But now, Hohenberger and a few vocal experts within the agency are pushing electric utilities to fix the problem.

"Once I understood how persistent the problem was, I couldn't drive down a highway and look at utility poles the same way," says Leo Swazo, a raptor collision and electrocution program coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver.

From 1978 to 1998, the agency recorded a total of 2,060 raptor deaths in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Half of the birds were electrocuted. Seventy-five percent of the electrocuted birds were golden eagles.

The National Eagle Repository for Native Americans, which collects dead eagles for tribal ceremonies, received 465 eagles in five months between October 1997 and February 1998. One-quarter of the birds had been electrocuted.

"Ass in the numbers of raptors never found, never reported, consumed by scavengers or that naturally decompose beneath a utility pole," says Swazo, "and it becomes obvious that our numbers don't fully reflect the extent of the problem."

The Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Eagle Protection Act all protect raptors. Utilities that don't fix lines that kill eagles face fines of $200,000 to $500,000.

But only once has the Fish and Wildlife Service fined a utility company for failing to fix poles that had repeatedly killed raptors. And the cost of making poles raptor-safe is nothing to sneeze at; building wooden perches, insulating transformers and reconfiguring wires can cost upward of $150 per pole.

It cost much less - $8 to $12 per pole - to make new poles safe for birds, says Colorado raptor expert Rick Harness, and raptor-friendly pole designs have been around for over 20 years. Nevertheless, most new poles installed worldwide are unsafe for raptors, and millions of existing poles remain lethal.

Slow Progress
Raptors are beginning to receive better treatment around the West, "albeit at a snail's pace," says Swazo, who helped push through a major electrical overhaul at the Rocky Mountain arsenal near Boulder, Colorado.

Once an EPA Superfund Site, the arsenal is now a National Wildlife Refuge, The U.S. military spent $94,000 rewiring and de-energizing lines and building perches, completely eliminating raptor electrocution.

Some utilities, like western Colorado's rural Delta-Montrose Electric Association, have also been receptive to solving the problem. "We allocate $3,000 annually to fix poles that have harmed raptors," says spokesman John Sulkey. "At the request of a local landowner, we just spent nearly $4,000 adding perches and changing wire configurations. And that was preventative medicine; no raptors had been killed."

In Montana, utility linemen who once knocked down osprey nests have be come "surrogate mothers" to the birds and have spearheaded school programs that build nesting platforms and monitor osprey populations. In Tucson, Arizona, the municipal utility has changed and insulated hundreds of transformers to protect Harris hawks.

It's not enough for falconer Hohenberger. "So far, I've only seen Band-Aid solutions," he says. Hohenberger argues that the industry needs to standardize new poles and stop putting up poles that can harm birds. He is working with Swazo, Harness, and Western Power to put together a video to teach utility companies about birds, and how to design raptor-friendly poles.

"Guys all through the industry are not aware of the problem, and they need to be," says Hohenberger. "It's a huge killer of birds."

But a transition from wood to metal poles is providing bird advocates with a new set of opportunities and challenges. "Steel prices are dropping, suitable trees are becoming scarce and metal poles have some characteristics superior to wood that engineers desire," explains Harness. "But metal poles conduct electricity differently than wood."

Last summer, Harness joined raptor conservationists and utility engineers in assembling a mock utility line with metal poles. They released several raptors and watched them negotiate the structures. "The bird behaviors informed us of appropriate designs," says Harness. "If their needs are accommodated as technology changes, then raptors will benefit. If not, we could see even more birds electrocuted." Here's a story that illustrates a problem many utilities face...not all animal contacts cause an outage. In some cases, it can be weeks before anyone knows what's happened.

Powerlines prove fatal

Even the protected confines of Yellowstone National Park aren't safe for grizzly bears. Park visitors Aug. 23 found three male grizzlies electrocuted by a downed powerline in the park's Hayden Valley. The two adults and one adolescent grizzly were probably killed at different times during the previous two weeks when they touched the live powerlines. A fallen tree had stretched the line close to the ground, but since it never broke, Montana Power remained unaware of the accident. Environmental groups in the region say the deaths prove that a recent proposal to remove Yellowstone grizzlies from the federal endangered species list is premature. "This just puts more pressure on them to slow down the delisting process," Matt Reid of the Great Bear Foundation told the Salt Lake Tribune. "If bears aren't safe in Hayden Valley, that's bad." Biologists think the bears were using the power corridor as a travel route and may have been attracted by the buzzing of the charged line.-Diane Kelly

(c) 1995 High Country News and Diane Kelly, PO Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428 (970)527-4898. There is a great story published in the San Jose Mercury News, November 7, 1998 about the confrontation between one small squirrel and 78,000 PG&E customers. Click here Here's an update on our un-ending battle with fire ants...Scientists are now looking at another imported insect as a possible control against the further spread of the fire ant scourge. (Fire ants were accidentally introduced in the southeastern United States in the 1930s, overpowered native species, and spread throughout the southern portion of the country). The phorid fly, so tiny it can fit on the head of a pin, will attack feeding or swarming ants and inject their eggs into the ant's thorax. The threat of phorid flies in the vicinity is enough to halt the ants' normal feeding behavior. Field experiments using the flies to control the ants are underway in Texas and Brazil. Keep your fingers crossed. A group has been formed to produce a video to educate the public, electric utilities, and resource management agencies regarding the continuing problem of the electrocution of birds of prey on electric utility structures. Partners in this effort are a diverse mixture including Raptor Research Foundation members, the North American Falconers Association, the Audubon Society, the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Rural Utility Service, the U.S. Department of Interior/ Fish and Wildlife Service, several investor owned and public electric utilities, environmental consulting firms, and the U.S. Department of Energy/Western Area Power Administration.

The video will consist of three parts. The first will develop an appreciation for birds of prey and illustrate their importance in the ecosystem. The second part will discuss the raptor electrocution problem. Design problems, including the location of facilities which entice the birds to perch and/or nest, and the continued design of structures causing electrocutions will be covered. Violations of Federal laws and regulations and associated penalties will also be addressed. The third video section will focus on solutions.

The Group is looking for existing film footage and additional partners. We anticipate completion of the video in the summer of 1999.

The following is from an article appearing in The Coloradoan, Friday, July 24, 1998.
The Western Area Power Administration, National Falconers Association, Audubon Society, U.S Fish and Wildlife, and several electric utilities are sponsoring a one-hour educational video on causes and prevention of raptor electrocutions. Taping for the video will begin on July 25, 1998 at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Center in Fort Collins, Colorado. Birds will be provided by the Center and mock poles and lines will used to simulate how electrocutions occur. Preventative measures and devices will demonstrate ways to avoid such electrocutions.

The goal of the project's manager, Rick Harness of Electric Systems Consultants and John Bridges of the Western Area Power Administration is to increase awareness of the problem and give some suggestions for solutions. An item of particular concern for both electric utilities and wildlife organizations is the increasing use of steel poles. While steel poles make good engineering and economic sense for utilities, they also increase the potential for raptor electrocutions.

The video is expected to be completed by the end of the summer and will target a general audience.