One heron's bad day brings safe landing for others
Becky Gillette

In mid-July ornithologist Joe Neal, author of In the Province of Birds, A Memoir from Western Arkansas, was visiting the Craig State Fish Hatchery in Centerton to watch shorebird migration.

Right before the hatchery, the road passes under a transmission line owned by American Electric Power (AEP)/Southwest Electric Power Company (SWEPCO). Big falcons perch on the 150-ft. tall poles at times. A flock of purple martins was perched on the wires. The hatchery gets a lot of visits from herons, egrets and many others birds – part of the reason it is designated as an Important Bird Area by Audubon Arkansas.

“Unfortunately, I saw the dead form of a great blue heron on the otherwise largely invisible top wire,” Neal said. “I assume this novice great blue tried to fly above the visible three wires and never saw the killer. Subsequently, I saw another flying heron that just barely dodged this wire. There is an inescapable moral dimension to such a bold creature caught helplessly in the nameless jaws of modernity.”

Neal contacted Dr. David B. Hall of AEP’s Air & Water Quality Services. Neal said Hall immediately understood the situation and knew the line needed to be marked.

“Things fell in place quickly,” Neal said.

On Sept. 9, two AEP transmission crews installed bird diverters on the portion of line where the blue heron was found dead. “The diverters were installed on the top wire, called the static wire, which provides lightning protection for the transmission line,” SWEPCO spokesman Peter Main aid. “The yellow coil-shaped markers increase the visibility of the static wire, which is smaller in diameter than the three conductor wires below that carry electricity.”

Neal gave credit to the crews high in the sky, in their buckets, where herons fly.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, herons included,” Neal said. “This is my hallelujah for novice great blues now less likely to become entangled when they lift off from the hatchery. There are less likely victims in our ever growing hunger for electricity and modernity.” Some people might question the cost of installing diverters.

  “You view remedial actions for wildlife as a costly waste?” Neal asks. “Okay then, Bud. When you get up there to the Pearly Gates, just try telling St. Peter you didn’t have time for herons. See where that gets you. I will pay the few extra cents to my monthly bill to give herons a better chance. I hope ole Bud will think about it and pay his share, too.”

Neal said the world is increasingly entangled in wire, plastic landscape netting, herbicides and pesticides, trash in the oceans, lead in the soil and fouled air, all at great and expanding cost to wild creatures and ourselves.

“When we respect wild creatures and their life requirements, we respect ourselves, too,” Neal said. “Sure, a remedial activity like installing diverters is costly. But in a broader sense, doing nothing is more so – to our self-respect, maybe even to our souls.”

SWEPCO claims in their Environmental Impact Statement for the Flint Creek to Shipe Road transmission line that, “Current engineering practices would be used to minimize avian conflicts with the line during project design. These practices would be specifically for raptors and waterfowl.

Design guidance would be taken from methods described in the Avian Protection Plan (APP) Guidelines (APLIC and USFWS 2005).” Almost the exact text was used in the Shipe Road to Kings River EIS.

The incidence of the blue heron death has raised concerns from Save The Ozarks (STO), the citizen group opposing a proposed 345-kV transmission line 49 miles long through the Ozarks. Opponents are particularly concerned about a blue heron rookery along the route, and power lines going through areas that have large numbers of wintering bald eagles.

“While SWEPCO mentioned their intentions to use APP guidelines in their planning of the Flint Creek to Shipe Road transmission line, the US Fish and Wildlife Service also recommends that an APP Plan specific to the project be developed,” said Doug Stowe, a member of STO’s board of directors. “An APP would have noted the close proximity of the fish hatchery to the power lines. There is no evidence that an APP was ever developed for that transmission line. In fact, the death of the heron proves that the APP was not developed.”

Stowe said to date there is no evidence of an instance in which the Arkansas Public Service Commission has required an APP, so perhaps it is reasonable for SWEPCO to have been morally deficient in its responsibility to protect wildlife.

“It seems to me that SWEPCO will do and say anything necessary to convince us that they are stewards of the environment,” Stowe said. “But in the case of the Flint Creek to Shipe Road power line, the conscientious and responsible thing would have been to have actually foreseen the problem, planned to avoid it and done mitigation measures before the death of such a noble bird. Unfortunately for SWEPCO, we keep learning about them, and what we learn provides no confidence in their judgment.”

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