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NW Fishletter #393, May 6, 2019
 Some BPA Transmission Corridors Double As Wildlife Refuge
Compared with the surrounding countryside, transmission line corridors may seem like unimportant pieces of the larger landscape. But with 15,000 miles of corridor to maintain through ecosystems that range from deserts to wetlands, the Bonneville Power Administration puts a lot of thought and expertise into the effort.
In Washington's Thurston and Skagit counties, Bonneville is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect important habitat for the threatened Oregon spotted frog. In Portland's Forest Park, the agency is partnering with the city and Friends of Forest Park to replant native and pollinator species in the transmission line rights-of-way. As its pollinator program gets underway, other corridors will also be evaluated for replanting with native plants that attract these important birds, bees and butterflies.
The land beneath high-voltage power lines may seem like an unlikely place to try to protect the environment. But with encroaching development, agriculture, invasive species and other competing forces, these corridors can become an important refuge for wildlife.
Take, for example, the Oregon spotted frog. Listed as threatened in 2014 under the Endangered Species Act, the frog is considered the most aquatic native frog in the Pacific Northwest, according to USFWS. The frogs are almost always found in or near a perennial body of water that includes some shallow water with abundant floating aquatic plants. They're currently found in five Washington and five Oregon counties.
Part of the frog's known habitat in Washington includes portions of a 40-mile transmission line corridor near Olympia, and another 20-mile right-of-way from Monroe to Bellingham, with an area along the Samish River.
Jonnel Deacon and Oden Jahn, who work in BPA's pollution prevention and abatement group, said power lines that go through the spotted frog's habitat must comply with National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act requirements. In an interview with NW Fishletter, they explained how Bonneville has been working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure their plans to maintain those areas are compatible with the frogs' needs.
Oregon spotted frog. Courtesy: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
"Part of Bonneville's sustainability approach is integrated vegetation management, where we have been trying to transition our rights-of-way from taller vegetation to more low-growing plants, so we can reduce maintenance from every year to every three years," Deacon said. "It saves ratepayers money by not having to go in every year. And it increases system reliability," he said.
Jahn said that since the Oregon spotted frogs prefer low-growing plants, protecting their habitat is very compatible with BPA's sustainability efforts. In some areas, human development is encroaching on the frogs' habitat. But the large protected areas below power lines will not be developed, and offer a corridor where wildlife can travel unimpeded. Jahn said that in working to protect the frog, a new site where the frogs are living was documented that was previously unknown to the USFWS.
Maintaining these areas without disturbing the frogs requires planning and forethought--and approval from USFWS. Methods being used to maintain these areas include hand mowing and cutting non-native vegetation, and limiting the use of herbicides and spot-treating areas when needed. Workers who maintain these areas are also careful to disinfect their boots and equipment before entering a new wetland to prevent the spread of bacteria and fungi that are harmful to the frogs.
In other rights-of-way, Bonneville has been planting native and low-growing flowering plants to provide important habitat for pollinators.
Nancy Wittpenn, an environmental protection specialist at Bonneville, said while safety continues to be BPA's top priority when maintaining these areas, these rights-of-way are increasingly being evaluated for how they can contribute to the surrounding environment.
About 18 months ago, BPA became one of the founding members of an initiative to promote pollinators through the Electric Power Research Institute. Called the Power-in-Pollinators Initiative, the collaborative effort found ways that electric utilities managing large tracts of land can cost-effectively enhance habitat for pollinators.
"Our pollinators are declining at alarming rates," Wittpenn told NW Fishletter. Through the pollinator initiative, BPA's vegetation management crews are now working to find mutual benefits--to the environment and to customers--for maintaining these lands, she said.
"When you cut large and tall-growing trees and manage those rights of way for the low-growing vegetation, that can create habitat for species that weren't there before," she said. Putting in nectar-producing plants can provide an important benefit to pollinating birds, bees and butterflies.
The transmission lines also serve as a highway for pollinating species, she said. Part of the problem facing these species is the fragmentation of their habitat. "They used to be able to fly unimpeded, but now, with so much development and pesticide use, it could be hard for them to find the nectar they need to get through the entire season."
Reseeding areas with pollinator-rich species is just one example of how Bonneville is influencing the way its rights-of-way are maintained, Wittpenn noted. Depending on the location, the agency may also look for plants with low water or low maintenance needs, often using native plants that will do well in the environment and prevent weeds from establishing.
According to its 2018 sustainability report, BPA in 2014 became the first power marketing administration to be accredited by the Right-of-Way Stewardship Council, which promotes sustainable vegetation management practices without excessive use of pesticides. -K.C. Mehaffey
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