BISMARCK, N.D. - This past winter, several winter storms knocked down thousands of power poles, taking out miles of line and jeopardizing the safety of thousands of North Dakotans who were left without power in frigid weather. As efforts were made to restore power and rebuild the electrical infrastructure as well as mitigate against future damage, there was an unexpected beneficiary – the whooping crane.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) revised criteria for replacement of storm-damaged power lines encourages rural electric cooperatives to bury overhead wires where possible. While the goal of underground lines is to prevent future damage, save money and human life, burying power lines also protects the long-legged birds.
In 2010, FEMA has provided funding to bury 22 miles of line across the state following damage caused by storms in January and April.
“Whenever there is a opportunity to bury a damaged transmission line instead of returning it to an overhead location, we prefer to bury it,” said FEMA mitigation specialist Dave Lucas. “Because, from a mitigation standpoint, once the line is buried the risk of future damage is greatly reduced if not eliminated. Any benefit above and beyond that is icing on the cake.”
While FEMA’s primary goal is to support storm damaged communities recovery, the whooping cranes’ migratory path is now an environmental consideration for FEMA. FEMA consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and received concurrence that burying lines is a measure that benefits the species.
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service reports collisions with power lines are the number one source of mortality to whooping crane chicks.
“When descending or taking off, the cranes are often unable to avoid power lines,” said Jeffrey Towner, field supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Bismarck. “Their large body is not so maneuverable, and visibility may be limited during inclement weather or low light conditions.”
An adult whooping crane stands almost five-feet tall with an over seven-foot wingspan. It is the tallest bird in North America.
At one time there were more than 10,000 whooping cranes, but due to drought, loss of habitat, shootings, strikes on obstructions, and other hazards the bird population greatly decreased. By 1940 the iconic crane was almost extinct, with only 16 remaining in the wild.
Today the only self-sustaining flock in the wild has 247 birds. The cranes’ migratory flight path from the Texas gulf to northern Canada spans most of North Dakota. Scientists estimate thousands of various bird species are killed by encounters with transmission and distribution power lines.
“Burying lines is a benefit to most any bird species,” said Towner.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ultimate goal for the whooping crane is to restore several secure, self-sustaining populations in the wild.