As the renewable energy sector continues to develop, a new type of energy infrastructure is emerging. Compared to other energy sources, wind energy requires little land and minimal disturbance. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that of the land required for turbines, only a small fraction is used for infrastructure like roads and foundations.
Despite this, new research suggests that wind energy infrastructure may be affecting the movement of mid-sized predators. In a 2017 study, Agha et al. used motion sensor cameras to monitor tortoise burrows within a wind farm facility in southern California. The cameras detected the movement of mesocarnivores, predators like foxes and raccoons, near burrows. Over the course of six months, the research team documented visits from bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, and western spotted skunks.
Using the footage, the authors asked how facility infrastructure affected the visitation rate of tortoise burrows. Specifically, the study examined how distance to nearest turbine or dirt road affected the likelihood of visitation by mesocarnivores. The authors found that the closer a burrow was to a wind turbine, the less likely it was to be visited. Conversely, burrows closer to roads were much more likely to have been visited by predators than burrows more distant.
These results suggest that wind energy infrastructure may be acting as movement corridors for mesocarnivores. Given that previous research has shown that mesocarnivores use roads more than would be predicted by chance, it seems likely that paths are funneling predator movement in the facility. Agha et al. also note that roads may also be movement corridors for the tortoises, as their burrows were more likely to be found closer to roads.
This work has important management implications for wind farms. For animals that prefer to move through disturbed habitat, dirt roads and culverts may direct and funnel their movements. If the land a facility occupies is home to sensitive wildlife, the spacing and number of roads should be assessed to minimize potential disturbance. When planning the spatial design of wind energy facilities, managers should consider this potential impact on wildlife communities.
Agha, M., Smith, A.L., Lovich, J.E., Delaney, D., Ennen, J.R., Briggs, J., Fleckenstein, L.J., Tennant, L.A., Puffer, S.R., Walde, A. and Arundel, T.R. 2017. Mammalian mesocarnivore visitation at tortoise burrows in a wind farm. The Journal of Wildlife Management. 81:1117-1124.
Denholm, P., Hand, M., Jackson, M. and Ong, S. 2009. Land use requirements of modern wind power plants in the United States. National Renewable Energy Lab.
Frey, S.N. and Conover, M.R. 2006. Habitat use by meso-predators in a corridor environment. Journal of Wildlife Management. 70:1111-1118.