Blue heron death on SWEPCO power line raises plea for protection
Becky Gillette

The recent death of a great blue heron on an American Electric Power (AEP)/Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) high voltage power line associated with the Shipe Road station in Benton County has led to calls for SWEPCO to take actions to place identifiers, such as balls, on lines that can be difficult for birds to see.

The line that entangled the great blue heron is immediately adjacent to the south boundary of Craig State Fish Hatchery at Centerton.  The line runs along and immediately adjacent to the entire south boundary of the hatchery.

“The line features tall metal poles with four wires,” said Joe Neal, a retired wildlife biologist for Ouachita National Forest and co-author with Douglas James of Arkansas Birds. “The bottom three wires are easily seen, but the top wire is smaller and less visible.”

The fish hatchery can attract birds like the great blue heron. The surrounding area, a former prairie, is used by all kinds of birds, including raptors.

“We have seen all three falcons here, peregrine, prairie, and kestrel, (the latter nesting), red-tailed hawks, Swainson’s hawks, both vulture species, and in winter, regular visits to the hatchery by bald eagles,” Neal said. “Obviously, they are all now at risk. And, because these lines cover many miles, it is not clear just how much of a risk the top line presents.”

This past week Neal was able to contact a senior manager at AEP whom Neal felt understood the problem and how to fix it. “These are big organizations. AEP, I think, has 20,000 employees, so it is not like any individual can just snap his or her fingers and fix something,” Neal said. “But I sure felt he was going to try and sort this one out. He said the fact that the line was so hard to see, and not marked, indicated to him that planners did not have information about either use of the area by migratory birds, like great blues, and certainly they were unaware that this part of northwest Arkansas is heavily used by all kinds of raptors, including bald eagles, in winter.”

This top wire just needs to be marked, Neal said.

“I feel pretty sure if this guy was in charge of the crew that goes out to mark the line, they'd be at it this afternoon,” he said. “But, that said, I am modestly hopeful the problem will be resolved. If not, of course I will keep working on it.”

SWEPCO spokesman Peter Main confirmed an AEP environmental department employee had spoken with Neal.

“The bird collided with the top wire, known as the static wire, on a 161,000-volt transmission line, near Centerton,” Main said. “A transmission crew removed the bird from the line and followed our procedure to report the mortality to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as required. The static line is smaller in diameter than the three electric conductor wires. We are evaluating the area around the fish hatchery for installation of markers that make the static line more visible.” 

  Neal is hopeful a couple of good things could come from this heron's death: 1. The line should get marked to make it more visible for the future.

2. This issue should be part of the design process involving potential extension of the proposed Shipe Road to Kings River power line east through the Ozarks.

Neal said the big former prairie areas around Berryville, for example, have populations of wintering raptors, too, plus nesting great blue herons. So Neal said birds could eventually be safer if SWEPCO fixes the line at Centerton and includes this feature in the designs of whatever power line they eventually build to the east.

“So it is about more than one bird killed in one place,” Neal said.

Opponents of the power line that would run about 50 miles through some of the steepest and most scenic terrain in the state say the blue heron death adds to concerns that SWEPCO has failed to do adequate environmental planning for the proposed $117-million project.

Doug Stowe, a member of the Save the Ozarks (STO) Board of directions, said SWEPCO’s environmental impact statement (EIS) for its application for approval to build the line mentions following avian protection guidelines at the Beaver Lake Crossing.  “No mention is made of river crossings, or of Route 108, 33 and 109 paralleling and crossing the White River or Kings,” Stowe said. “As mortifying as the image of the dead heron is, for AEP, you know this is everyday stuff. They will report it since they are forced to, and they may put some balls on the line to make it more visible. And that will be it. They will never question whether it should have been built in the first place.”

STO Director Pat Costner said the issue of bird protection is especially important because SWEPCO’s preferred Route 33/109 crosses the White River close to the major great blue heron rookery at Beaver.

Main said the company’s EIS Avian Protection Guidelines would be used to minimize avian conflicts with the line, particularly for raptors and waterfowl.

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