Bird advocates who had lobbied for mandatory standards warned that the new guidelines would do nothing to stem bird deaths as wind power builds up across the country.
"We have a responsibility to ensure that solar, wind and geothermal projects are built in the right way and in the right places so they protect our natural and cultural resources and balance the needs of our wildlife," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. President Barack Obama has called for the nation to get 80 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2035, and renewable sources are expected to play a key role in that effort.
The department is seeking public comment for its proposed guidelines, which were released ahead of a two-day renewable energy conference in Washington. Among other things, the guidelines call for wind developers to eliminate from consideration areas that would pose high risk to animals and habitat, and to take steps to mitigate harm by, for example, restoring habitat nearby.
"With proper diligence paid to siting, operations and management of projects, it is possible to mitigate for adverse effects" on wildlife, the guidelines say. "This is best accomplished when the developer coordinates as early as possible with the (Fish and Wildlife) Service and other stakeholders."
The agency is also proposing new voluntary guidance aimed at preventing deaths of bald and golden eagles.
The American Bird Conservancy said that the wind industry's goal of providing 20 percent of the nation's electricity by 2030 would lead to a million bird deaths a year or more. The group took out print and online advertisements in political publications this week featuring a cartoon bird saying, "Help me get home alive," and asking people to sign a petition calling for mandatory standards.
"Let's not fast-track wind energy at the expense of America's birds," said Mike Parr, a vice president with the group. "Just a few small changes need to be made to make wind bird-smart, but without these, wind power simply can't be considered a green technology."
John M. Anderson, director of siting policy at the American Wind Energy Association, said that every form of energy, communication and transportation has an impact on wildlife
"We really feel that based on post-construction data that's collected, that there is not a significant impact, and it is far exceeded by other sources of energy production and communication towers," he said. "Why are we being held to a different standard?"
Anderson said that the wind industry has a long history of collaborating with conservation groups to find ways to reduce bird deaths, and noted that wind energy displaces emissions of carbon dioxide blamed for global warming, which has been identified as a big threat to wildlife, including birds.
A 2005 Forest Service report estimated that 500 million to possibly more than 1 billion birds are killed in the U.S. every year in collisions with manmade structures such as vehicles, buildings, power lines, telecommunication towers and wind turbines. The report estimated that 550 million are killed by buildings and 130 million by power lines, while only 28,000 are killed by wind turbines; a 2009 report by Fish and Wildlife scientist put the figure at 440,000 annual bird deaths by wind turbines.
Despite those lower numbers, the bird group argues that the wind industry is in a unique position because it's at the beginning of a nationwide build-out and can still take steps to minimize bird impacts before that occurs.
Last year, a second "State of the Birds" report from the Interior Department found that global climate change poses a significant threat to migratory bird populations. The previous year, the first such report, also released by the Interior secretary, found that all types of energy production - such as wind, ethanol and mountaintop coal mining - were contributing to steep drops in bird populations.