Alaska utility finds solutions to stop zapping eagles
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Six years ago, the fishing port of Kodiak had a
problem: fried bald eagle.
Power poles on the island 250 miles south of Anchorage provided convenient
but deadly perches for the majestic birds when they touched electrified
equipment and completed a circuit between live wire and ground.
Concerned about bird deaths and the expense of outages they caused, the
island’s power cooperative, Kodiak Electric Association, started
experimenting with protection measures that could stand up to 67 inches of
rain a year, howling winds and the acidic excrement of America’s national
When commercial solutions didn’t work, the cooperative invented its own.
The island has now become a laboratory of sorts to see what works in
raptor protection, and the utility dispenses advice to companies as far
away as Tampa, Fla.
“Kodiak is a very good example of the way it should be done,” said Jill
Birchell, wildlife protection special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service in Anchorage.
Kodiak Island is America’s second largest, after Hawaii. Thirty miles from
the mainland in the eastern Gulf of Alaska, surrounded by water rich in
salmon, halibut and cod, Kodiak is home to more than 2,500 bald eagles.
When lakes and rivers on the mainland freeze, dozens more arrive for the
“It’s something that goes on along the coast of Alaska anywhere there is
fish processing,” said Denny Zwiefelhofer, a biologist for the Kodiak
National Wildlife Refuge, which covers two-thirds of the 3,588-square mile
But each year, about a half-dozen eagles were dying on Kodiak power poles
or flying into lines and buildings at 40 mph while fighting over a fish
“The eagles were contacting the power lines and electrocuting themselves,”
said Lanny VanMeter, the utility’s operations manager, who is credited
with spearheading changes.
Eagles’ feathers are insulated when dry, but if the bird’s beak, flesh or
talons touch two live wires or a live wire and a ground, it could be
The utility couldn’t just build eagle perches over its poles. Eagle
excrement can damage metal parts, causing outages.
“You have to be careful of that,” VanMeter said. “When the eagles
defecate, it’s a very acidic type of defecation and it will eat stuff up.”
Kodiak Electric Association’s first choice for protecting eagles is
putting up safe power poles. New poles have a minimum of 60 inches between
contact points. That’s too wide for anything but an eagle’s feathers to
But with 320 miles of existing lines, the company, like other utilities,
cannot afford to replace them all at once.
The second choice is to identify the deadliest poles and retrofit them —
also an expensive proposition at an industry average of about $400 per
pole and an interruption of power to customers.
If the company can’t cover up or move exposed contact points on poles, it
tries to divert the eagles from them.
Kodiak Electric has been aggressive in trying out equipment to save
eagles. Tim Chervick of Salt Lake City, inventor of the Firefly bird
flapper, a device that uses color and motion to divert birds from power
lines, said only a few utilities will take a product and actively try it.
VanMeter received a sample of his invention and immediately ordered two
dozen, Chervick said.
“He said we’re always trying for new products,” Chervick said. “Other
companies, you have to give them some evidence of who’s using it.”
The Firefly has been successful protecting Kodiak eagles flying near wires
in low light. Other products did not live up to their billing. One company
sold a device with sharp spikes designed to keep birds from landing; a
Kodiak eagle impaled itself on the prongs.
VanMeter looked for solutions that could be installed without interrupting
service to customers. And they had to be cheap.
“If you can do something cost effectively, you can do a lot more of it,”
When the utility couldn’t find a commercial solution, it experimented. The
biggest success has been a simple diversion device that looks like a Hula
Hoop cut into two pieces. The hoops are made of three-quarter-inch black
plastic irrigation pipe that attach to the ends of a 10-foot crossbar,
forming an arch about 18 inches high over hazardous hardware on the pole.
Eagles won’t land on the flimsy perch and won’t fly or land underneath
them. The cost: $225, including $25 for materials, $200 for labor. They
can be installed without turning off power to the line.
Utilities have more at stake than good citizenship. The U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service in 1998 prosecuted a Utah electric utility under the
Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act for
the “taking” of eagles and hawks by power lines.
Moon Lake Electric Association argued that the laws applied to illegal
hunting, but a federal judge disagreed. The company paid $100,000 in
Kodiak Electric sends out packets of information on raptor protection to
any utility that asks. The utility has had no eagle deaths in the last
In December, the Fish and Wildlife Service recognized Kodiak Electric with
a wildlife stewardship award and VanMeter with a public service award.
Birchell, the wildlife protection officer, said Kodiak documents every
eagle death, diagnoses how it died, reports a proposed solution and then
reports when changes are installed.
VanMeter said the utility has spent $27,000 since 1999 on eagle protection
measures — far less than the cost to customers of power interruptions
caused by the birds dying.
Wildlife biologist and utility consultant Rick Harness of EDM
International in Fort Collins, Colo., said raptor electrocutions are a
global problem. With the federal laws in the United States, “the solutions
are in place,” he said. “It’s just a matter of implementing them.”
Alaska has been one of the more aggressive states in dealing with the
issue, along with Colorado and Florida, Harness said. He credits VanMeter
with trying out raptor protection measures outside the laboratory.
“He’s doing it in a real world setting,” he said.
On the Net:
Kodiak Electric Association: http://www.kodiakelectric.com/
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska: http://alaska.fws.gov/
Patricia J. Devereux
News editor, The Nevada Appeal
(775) 881-1224, 629-9369