The eastern shore of Lake Tohopekaliga in St. Cloud is home to one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in the United States. It’s also an area with thousands of utility poles that connect residents in this bucolic outpost to OUC — The Reliable One’s electric grid, creating the potential for dangerous interactions between powerlines and the nation’s symbol of pride and strength.
Eagles and other avian species with large wingspans are particularly vulnerable to injury or death when they come into contact with powerlines worldwide. Such interactions usually result in power outages, too.
“There’s constant interaction between wildlife and power lines,” says Dustin Catrett, who, as OUC’s environmental compliance specialist, oversees the comprehensive Avian Protection Plan he helped develop in 2009. Catrett also represents OUC on the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee, a national group that partners with utilities to improve protections for birds.
“There are 24,000 poles in the St. Cloud service territory where a high density of bald eagles live, so it’s incumbent on us to try to mitigate the probability of unfortunate events occurring.”
How Does OUC Protect Eagles?
OUC retrofits and installs over 200 poles a year with protective covering over electrical points that birds come into contact with. More than 2,000 poles have been equipped with avian protection covers.
Should an eagle come in contact with powerlines, OUC immediately responds by retrofitting every pole within a quarter-mile radius of the incident with protective covers. On average, less than two eagles per year are affected by contact with OUC powerlines.
Bald eagles were removed, in 2007, from the federal list of threatened and endangered species, but they’re still protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Golden and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Those laws require reporting of injurious or fatal interactions to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While Catrett says he wishes eagles weren’t attracted to the single wooden poles that line streets and intersect open fields in OUC’s St. Cloud service area, ornithologist Greg Forcey provides insight into why they are.
“They find an unobstructed view,” says Forcey, who as a principal scientist with Normandeau Environmental Consultants worked with Catrett on developing OUC’s Avian Protection Plan. “Compared with a tree, a pole gives them better views for hunting. It’s just a very convenient place to perch.”
OUC’s protection plan includes a bird identification guide, protocols for handling injured or dead birds, and procedures for nest management and enhancements. Like other electric utilities, OUC provides nesting sites for such birds of prey as osprey and eagles by installing dish-shaped platforms on top of powerline structures. Osprey are known to build large nests made of dirt and branches on the platforms. Catrett says an osprey nest could weigh as much as 100 pounds.
“I believe our plan has been very effective in protecting many species of birds but particularly the bald eagle,” says Catrett. “As long as there are overhead powerlines, there will be birds landing on them, so we have to take precautions to safeguard them as well as ensure the reliability of power to our customers.”