Big Wyoming wind project closing in on federal eagle permit

Source: By MEAD GRUVER, Associated Press • Posted: Friday, December 9, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — One of the biggest wind energy projects under development in the U.S. got closer Thursday to securing a federal permit to kill a limited number of eagles without facing the prospect of a penalty.

A final plan released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would help ensure the Chokecherry-Sierra Madre wind farm in south-central Wyoming does not kill too many bald and golden eagles with its hundreds of spinning turbine blades.

Power Company of Wyoming could get two permits as soon as January if Fish and Wildlife gives final approval to the plan. One permit would allow removal of unoccupied eagle nests during construction of the first 500 of up to 1,000 turbines.

A five-year permit would allow up to 14 golden eagle deaths a year during operation. Power Company of Wyoming, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Denver-based Anschutz Corp., would offset those deaths by retrofitting existing power lines so they cannot electrocute eagles.

The goal would be no net loss of golden eagles, if not a net benefit for the species.

“We know that golden eagles get electrocuted. There’s a way to estimate how frequently they get electrocuted by power lines that are not safe,” said Clint Riley, Fish and Wildlife assistant regional director for migratory birds.

He added: “They have to fix enough power poles to try to match up the number of eagles that would be saved by those actions compared to those that would be taken by the wind farm.”

The permit would allow as many as two bald eagles per year to be killed. The company would not have to take measures to offset bald eagle deaths because bald eagles, as a species, are abundant enough to withstand those losses, according to Fish and Wildlife.

The estimated losses are much lower than a U.S. Bureau of Land Management estimate a few years ago that the wind farm would kill between 46 and 64 eagles per year. Since then, Power Company of Wyoming has been planning the project in a way to keep eagle deaths to a minimum.

Violations of the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act carry fines of $100,000 and even more for repeat offenses. Killing large numbers of eagles and other birds can land a wind farms in court, as happened in 2014 when Portland, Oregon-based PacifiCorp pleaded guilty and was fined $2.5 million for killing 38 golden eagles and 336 other protected birds over five years at a Wyoming wind farm.

 The project has been in the planning and permitting phase for almost nine years. Construction could begin within several years if all remaining government approvals go through.

The project’s 1,500-megawatt first phase — enough electricity to power up to 367,000 homes — would be larger than any other U.S. wind farm currently operating.

The biggest existing U.S. wind farm, the Alta Wind Energy Center in California, produces up to 1,320 megawatts.