Ducks fall victim to power lines

Collisions deadly | AltaLink plans to install more bird flight diverters near Pincher Creek

The death of dozens or possibly hundreds of ducks on ranchland near Pincher Creek, Alta., is raising questions about the environmental impact of overhead electrical lines.

Carcasses, dismembered wings and skeletal remains of numerous ducks lying beneath a 240 kilovolt power line were reported in early January to AltaLink, the electrical system provider, by area resident and environmentalist David McIntyre.

The number and age of the duck body parts seems to indicate a longer-term problem with power line collisions rather than a one-time anomaly.

“I was just rather amazed by the number of dead ducks that I saw,” said McIntyre, who visited the area along Highway 785 north of Pincher Creek at the end of December.

Local residents had told him about the dead birds.

“This looks to me like wave upon wave of dead ducks … and I think that it’s likely that far more ducks have died than we have any kind of real picture because so many have been taken by either scavengers or people.”

McIntyre said golden and bald eagles, ravens, magpies and coyotes are frequenting the area, eating or carrying away bodies of ducks. That makes it difficult to estimate the number killed.

Alberta Fish and Wildlife and AltaLink have examined the area and reportedly collected some of the ducks.

Scott Schreiner, director of external engagement with AltaLink, said the company had a crew on site the day after McIntyre reported the problem.

“We found a number of birds had come into contact with the line,” he said. “It’s difficult to say exactly how many because it wasn’t necessarily a recent contact and there was a lot of scavenger activity.”

AltaLink continues to investigate and has decided to install additional bird flight diverters in hopes of reducing duck collisions with lines. The devices wrap around lines to make them more visible.

However, some of the lines that killed the ducks already had diverters installed.

“We will be installing additional bird diverters and we are going to do more regular environmental patrols in that area now that we’ve had an event because we clearly want to reduce the likelihood of an event like this happening again,” Schreiner said.

The power line that killed the ducks went into operation in spring 2012, said Schreiner. Another AltaLink line is now under construction immediately east of that one, though wire has not yet been strung.

The area is within two kilometres of the Oldman Reservoir. Water below the dam remains open, providing a wintering area for mallards, Canada geese and other species.

McIntyre said it appears the ducks must fly over or under power lines to reach nearby feeding areas, which they do most often at dawn and dusk.

He met with AltaLink’s environmental advisers last week to discuss the issue and said he asked for copies of the company’s environmental assessment for the line along Highway 785 and the new line being installed. However, he doesn’t yet know if he will get them.

Schreiner said an environmental assessment was done on the line that killed the ducks, which is why part of it already had bird flight diverters.

“We haven’t seen anything like this before, which is why we’re taking it seriously.”

Jim Devries, a regional research biologist with Ducks Unlimited, said duck collisions with power lines are not uncommon, particularly around wetlands.

Though it is difficult to say whether high winds and poor weather conditions this winter have exacerbated the problem in the Pincher Creek area, he noted ducks do not have good forward vision.

“Their ability to see forward when they’re flying is not great,” he said, though their peripheral and low light vision is keen.

Those who have observed the dead duck carcasses agree they are mostly mallards, which Devries said makes sense in terms of bird habits.

“Mallards most commonly overwinter, if there’s open water. Other types are more tenacious about migrating.”

Kevin Zahara, press secretary for Alberta environment minister Robin Campbell, confirmed the minister was aware of the matter.

“He hasn’t been to the site, but we know that AltaLink is working on solutions and investigating what happened down there, so they’re keeping us apprised of the situation,” Zahara said Jan. 15.

McIntyre said he is worried that duck deaths will continue and increase when additional power lines are strung.

“It’s an ongoing killing machine, and they’re now creating a sister component to that, going off to the east, which would appear to be just as dangerous, and they are proposing yet another one.”

A third electrical line is planned to the north, but AltaLink has encountered delays because of objections from the Livingstone Landowners Group, an organization of ranchers, farmers and other landowners who say they want to protect native grassland and vistas around the Porcupine Hills.

Opponents to electrical lines often suggest the wire should be buried, an option AltaLink said is substantially more expensive.

That doesn’t sit well with McIntyre.

“Why not go underground because it would serve society in so many ways to go underground and follow established disturbance lines already,” he said.

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