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Bye Bye Bats?

When night falls, many insects come out to feed, often on human food crops. Helping to turn back the pillaging insect hoards is an aerial armada of unsung and unloved heroes—bats. Bats are voracious predators of nocturnal insects, helping to control the populations of many crop and forest pests. Tragically, several migratory tree-dwelling species are being killed in unprecedented numbers by wind turbines across North America. Recent analysis presented in the journal Science suggests that reduced bat populations cause agricultural losses estimated at more than $3.7 billion/year and could rise as high as $53 billion/year if bats are driven to extinction. Oblivious to the carnage being caused by wind turbines, climate change alarmists and green political dupes have continued to push for rapid expansion of wind power. It is time to call a moratorium on wind park construction until a more realistic and less damaging policy can be formulated.

America's bats are being threatened by a lethal one-two punch. White-nose syndrome (WNS) and the increased development of wind-power facilities are threatening populations of insectivorous bats in North America. WNS is thought to be caused by a newly discovered fungus (Geomyces destructans). This fungus infects the skin of bats while they hibernate and can trigger fatal alterations in behavior and physiology. According to Justin G. Boyles et al., over one million bats have probably died, and winter colonies have declined by more than 70% in some regions. “Populations of at least one species (little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus) have declined so precipitously that regional extirpation and extinction are expected ,” their report, “Economic Importance of Bats in Agriculture,” states.

But the fatal fungus is not the only reason for the precipitous drop in bat populations. In the face of rapidly increasing oil prices, continued unrest across North Africa and the Middle East, and capricious drilling policies by the current American administration, greens have been pushing the rapid expansion of wind energy. Though WNS is bad, the Science report clearly identifies the wind power industry as a major threat to bat species:

At the same time, bats of several migratory tree-dwelling species are being killed in unprecedented numbers at wind turbines across the continent. Why these species are particularly susceptible to wind turbines remains a mystery, and several types of attraction have been hypothesized. There are no continental-scale monitoring programs for assessing wildlife fatalities at wind turbines, so the number of bats killed across the entire United States is difficult to assess. However, by 2020 an estimated 33,000 to 111,000 bats will be killed annually by wind turbines in the Mid-Atlantic Highlands alone. Obviously, mortality from these two factors is substantial and will likely have long-term cumulative impacts on both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Because of these combined threats, sudden and simultaneous population declines are being witnessed in assemblages of temperate-zone insectivorous bats on a scale rivaled by few recorded events affecting mammals.

The contribution of bats to the agriculture industry is little appreciated by most people, but it is substantial. In cotton-dominated south-central Texas, published estimates of the value of pest suppression services provided by bats ranges from about $12 to $173 per acre with a most likely scenario of $74 per acre. The authors calculated new estimates to the entire United States to gauge how much the disappearance of bats could cost the agricultural industry. “We estimate the value of bats to the agricultural industry is roughly $22.9 billion/year,” they state, with high end estimates as large as $53 billion/year.


The worth of insectivorous bats. Values ×$1000 per county.

The report admits that estimating the agricultural benefits of bats is difficult. Bats have a trickle down effect on agriculture costs, hiding their true value to humans. Indeed, the estimates above do not include the second and third hand benefits of bats nightly insect predation. The report explains:

These estimates include the reduced costs of pesticide applications that are not needed to suppress the insects consumed by bats. However, they do not include the “downstream” impacts of pesticides on ecosystems, which can be substantial, or other secondary effects of predation, such as reducing the potential for evolved resistance of insects to pesticides and genetically modified crops. Moreover, bats can exert top-down suppression of forest insects, but our estimated values do not include the benefit of bats that suppress insects in forest ecosystems because economic data on pest-control services provided by bats in forests are lacking. Even if our estimates are halved or quartered, they clearly show how bats have enormous potential to influence the economics of agriculture and forestry.

The rapid expansion of wind power is becoming a world wide problem for both birds and bats (see “Wind Power: Green and Deadly”). For the first time, more than half of all new wind power was added outside of the traditional markets in Europe and North America in 2010. This was mainly due to the continuing boom in China, which accounted for nearly half the new wind installations, a total of 16.5 gigawatts (GW). According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) other developing countries also expanded their wind capacity, including India, which added 2.1 GW in 2010, Brazil (326 MW), Mexico (316 MW), and 213 MW were installed in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

Overall, global wind energy installations increased by 35.8 GW in 2010. Wind farm capacity rose to 194.4 GW, a 22.5% increase over the 158.7 GW peak capacity at the end of 2009. In contrast, the US, traditionally one of the strongest wind markets, saw annual installations drop by 50% from 2009's fevered pace, to only 5 GW in 2010. This was attributed to a combination of increased competition from natural gas and inconsistent Obama administration policies.

“Our industry continues to endure a boom-bust cycle because of the lack of long-term, predictable federal policies, in contrast to the permanent entitlements that fossil fuels have enjoyed for 90 years or more,” said Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association. ”Now that we’re competing with natural gas on cost, we need consistent federal policies to ensure we have a diverse portfolio of energy sources in this country.”

What's bad for wind power may well be good for the America's threatened bat populations. “Bats are among the most overlooked, yet economically important, nondomesticated animals in North America, and their conservation is important for the integrity of ecosystems and in the best interest of both national and international economies,”conclude Boyles et al., warning that “Although adverse impacts of WNS on bat populations have occurred relatively rapidly, impacts of wind energy development appear to pose a more chronic, long-term concern.” Once again, the rush to supposed “green” energy has resulted in unintended side effects—bad for agriculture and deadly for the bats.


Swarms of beneficial, insect eating bats may soon be a thing of the past..

Those who espouse the precautionary principle would have to agree, the potential ecological and economic damage caused by wind turbines demands a moratorium on wind farm construction. For years, eco-activists have used lawsuits and interminable ecological impact studies to halt the construction of nuclear power plants—should wind farms receive any lesser scrutiny? The wind industry cannot be allowed to hide behind the mantle of renewable green energy any longer.

Despite poor economics and inability to scale up beyond 15-20% of total grid consumption, the wind lobby continues to press politicians for more tax breaks and handouts. President Obama recently chose a Spanish owned wind turbine factory for a speech on energy policy, proving how out of touch and ideologically blind his administration is when it comes to actually solving America's energy and environmental problems. With 40% of the US corn (maze) crop being hijacked to make automotive ethanol, driving up prices at supermarkets across the land, can American consumers absorb another $50 billion shock to food prices? For the sake of both our bats and our farmers, let's hope that clearer heads prevail.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

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