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Fact-checking Zinke’s claim that wind turbines kill 750,000 birds a year

HOUSTON -- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told thousands of mostly oil and natural gas executives at an energy conference here Tuesday that wind turbines kill as many as 750,000 birds a year, repeating a criticism made by other Trump administration officials.

The bottom line: Zinke is exaggerating the figure beyond virtually all published estimates. But more importantly, turbines are a drop in the bucket when it comes to the human-related causes of bird deaths, context Zinke didn't provide.

Adapted from Loss, et al., 2015, "Direct mortality of Birds from Anthropogenic Causes", Johnson, et al., 2016, "Avian fatalities at wind energy facilities in North America: A comparison of recent approaches"; Note: The wind turbine value is an average of three estimates from Johnson's paper; Chart: Axios Visuals

Gritty details: Wind turbines are nowhere near the top of the list of human-related causes, according to all data, including from Zinke’s own agency. Conclusive data on exactly how many deaths wind turbines cause depends a lot on the type of turbine, methodology used and timeline. The most recent data available is from 2014, for example.

  • “The amount of installed wind energy has increased quite a bit in the last five years since those papers were published, so the actual mortality would be expected to scale up somewhat as well,” said Scott Loss, a professor at Oklahoma State University who tracks these issues. “Regardless of the estimate, wind turbines rank much lower than many other human-caused threats in terms of total birds killed.”

For the record: An Interior Department spokeswoman said a recent United States Geological Survey published in peer-reviewed scientific journals estimated the number could be as high as 689,000 bird deaths a year caused by wind turbines, not including Alaska and Hawaii. Including all 50 states and taking into account the growth of the industry as well as increased blade size, “the number could very reasonably be about 750,000,” a spokeswoman said. She did not provide an actual copy of that report.