North Shore attracts wind power, migrating birds

Anna Peterson
Researcher Anna Peterson studies birds over a foggy valley north of Two Harbors, Minn.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

It's a bit of a hike to reach Anna Peterson's daytime workplace -- a high spot on the Superior Hiking Trail about 35 miles northeast of Duluth.

After a pre-dawn hike, she arrives at daybreak to a rocky overlook -- the green forest below, a glimpse of Highway 61, and vast Lake Superior beyond, shrouded in a chill, foggy haze.

"This is the greatest job in the world," said Peterson, a researcher who is in the third year of documenting how many birds migrate along Lake Superior's northern shoreline.

At exactly 7 a.m. Peterson starts the day's bird count, soon spotting a bald eagle on the shoreline. Just after sunrise on a recent day she counted more than 6,000 birds in a sky that appeared sprayed in pepper.

Peterson's work for the University of Minnesota-Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute suggests the area is one of North America's major flyways.

But the corridor for millions of warblers, cedar waxwings, northern flickers, hawks and owls make it a strong candidate to attract wind turbines that generate electricity. Already, dozens of potential wind projects wait in the wings.

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After North Shore winds prompted some local communities to look into developing wind power, Mike Mageau, who directs the Environmental Studies program at UMD, assessed the winds there and found them ideal to turn wind turbines.

"It looks like the highest elevations closest to Lake Superior are sort of the sweet spots for wind," Mageau said.

North Shore communities including Hovland, Lutsen, and Finland had strong average winds.

Wind turbines can kill birds, but likely not as many as some think. According to the U.S. Forest Service, buildings, power lines, cats and cars kill far more birds than wind turbines do.

A 2007 National Research Council study found no evidence wind turbines have significant impacts on bird populations, with one possible exception in California. But the report also recommends further research on the issue.

Mageau's wind study was funded in part through by the state Department of Natural Resources, which was seeking information on whether birds migrate near the best wind locations.

"One of the promises we made is that we would sort of develop this regional wind map, and we would do a bird migratory route overlay," he said.

But no one had studied the birds, beyond raptor counts in Duluth. That led to Peterson's study.

"We had no idea this was happening," she said the number of birds. "There's millions of birds traveling in this really tiny corridor, from about the shoreline to about the first or second ridge-line inland."

The question for the North Shore will be how to balance two crucial interests.

In Grand Marais, members of the Cook County Local Energy Project, a citizen's group, hope wind power can lessen the community's global impact by reducing the need for coal-based electricity.

"We have no intention of killing a bunch of birds," said Jeremy Lopez, who chairs the group's wind-power committee. "With birds being so important here on the north shore, both for tourism and for the local ecology, if there's going to be a problem with birds I don't think a wind tower would go up, as far as our group is concerned."

Lopez said mitigation is one possibility, like stopping generators during migrations.