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Safeguarding Wildlife

Maintaining reliability while promoting healthy ecosystems

April 2024

(Photo by Robert Lennox, courtesy Virginia Osprey Foundation)

by Jim Robertson, Staff Writer

From squirrels traveling the power line highway to birds of prey perching atop utility poles, electric cooperatives in Virginia and Maryland share common causes of temporary power outages. Tree-related issues generally top the list, but wildlife is a close second, particularly squirrels and birds.

Your electric co-op is as committed to protecting wildlife and their habitats as it is to providing safe and reliable power to members. Through effective vegetation management and installation of protection devices on system infrastructure, co-ops can maintain reliable service, safe for all.

“We all have a role to play in creating and conserving wildlife habitat,” says Stephen Living, habitat education coordinator for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. “Power line rights-of-way can provide important early successional habitat. Many of Virginia’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need (as defined by Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan) rely on grasslands. Managing vegetation along utility corridors to promote diverse, native plant communities can help fill this need.”


Electric cooperatives fully embrace technology and continually seek innovative solutions. This helps attract highly qualified professionals to lead these efforts. Cindy Devlin Musick, senior director of vegetation management services at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative in Fredericksburg, Va., and her team utilize integrated vegetation-management practices to preserve and create wildlife habitats.

“The establishment of a vigorous community of grasses, wildflowers, and low-growing shrubs on the right-of-way corridor limits the germination of new tree seedlings on the site,” explains Musick. Dead trees are topped off to create ideal habitat conditions for raccoons and woodpeckers, or perches for larger birds of prey.

Musick, who is in the final year of her doctorate in forestry management, also maintains beneficial relationships with the Virginia Department of Forestry and various Cooperative Extension offices to ensure use of best practices.

Pollinator garden at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative’s Blue Ridge district office.


A variety of areas within solar farms and underneath transmission power lines have been designated for pollinators, like butterflies and bees.

These gardens are intended for growing specific types of nectar and pollen-producing plants. For more than four years, Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative has maintained a pollinator garden surrounding its solar arrays.

“Working together with Mother Nature is mutually beneficial,” says SMECO Vegetation Management Supervisor Kolby Corrigan. “Anything we can do for the environment is good for everybody.”

Started as a pilot program, the SMECO pollinator project expands throughout nearly 2 acres where weeds are pulled by hand and no herbicides are used. Following months of seed research and soil tests, the garden was certified as a monarch waystation, providing resources necessary for monarch butterflies to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. Pollinator gardens have become popular with a variety of cooperatives in the region.

A nesting box platform sits alongside Choptank Electric Cooperative power lines in Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore. (Photo by Jim Robertson)


Maintaining reliable service while protecting our free-roaming friends can present challenges. Squirrels have become synonymous with blinking lights and power outages. When a squirrel climbs onto a transformer, it may cross the bare wire that leads from the high-voltage line to the transformer. Simultaneously touching this wire and a part of the transformer with sufficient electrical ground, an electrical short can knock out power and electrocute the animal.

Squirrels and other animals can create havoc in substations, as well. Leadership at BARC Electric Cooperative in the mountains of Millboro, Va., is evaluating protection devices for their substations. “We anticipate a significant reduction in animal-related outages within the substation environment,” says BARC Chief Operations Officer Chris Botulinski.

Like the squirrels they hunt, birds of prey cause their share of power outages. Ospreys, eagles, hawks, owls and other raptors can come into contact with power lines or other pieces of energized equipment in a variety of ways. Most commonly, their wider wingspan is to blame. Nests built on or near infrastructure can create dangerous potential for electrocution.

Choptank Electric Cooperative, located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, proactively constructs nesting boxes at the tops of former utility poles, parallel to power lines, to attract ospreys and other large birds away from energized equipment. Additionally, wildlife-protection devices are installed to deter birds and other animals from potentially dangerous situations.

“Ospreys often like to build their nests on the cross arms of power poles,” explains Carl Freeman, environmental manager at SMECO. “This increases the danger of electrocution and is hazardous to our electrical system. If no eggs are present, we remove the nest and install deterrence at the top of the pole. We try to ensure the safety of the osprey and the integrity of our system.”

“Northern Neck Electric Cooperative has developed many tactics for discouraging animal contacts with the power system,” says Richard McLendon, vice president of operations for NNEC. “These include different construction standards, animal guards and other deterrents, avian-protection plans and personnel training. Wildlife-protection devices keep the lights on, and they help protect the wildlife that we all enjoy.”

A wildlife-protection device in Virginia’s Northern Neck helps deter squirrels, birds and other animals from potentially dangerous portions of the electrical infrastructure.


The Virginia Osprey Festival is one of the largest festivals of its kind celebrating the osprey’s annual return to the shores of Virginia. This year’s event takes place April 13 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Town Hall in Colonial Beach. Learn more and purchase your tickets at virginiaospreyfoundation.org.

Maryland hosts its own osprey festival the week prior, April 6, at Drum Point Club in Lusby, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Visit marylandospreyfestival.org for details.

Additionally, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources launched a new web-based app for outdoor enthusiasts to discover and explore the vast array of public lands in Virginia. With over 1,000 wild places to explore, “Explore the Wild” is the ultimate online tool to find the best public lands in Virginia to view wildlife, hike and more. For more information, visit dwr.virginia.gov/explore.