FWS considering eagle take permit for massive proposed Wyo. wind farm

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Obama administration announced today that it would consider allowing a company that wants to build one of the world’s largest wind farms in southeast Wyoming to harm or injure eagles during the 30-year life of the project.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct a detailed environmental impact statement (EIS) for the massive Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project to study the effects on golden eagles, potentially leading to the issuance of a so-called take permit allowing the project to harm or kill a certain number of eagles each year, according to notice published in today’s Federal Register.

Today’s notice kicks off a 60-day public scoping period ending Feb. 3. The service has scheduled two public hearings, the first set Dec. 16 in Rawlins, Wyo., and the second scheduled for Dec. 17 in Saratoga, Wyo.

The Bureau of Land Management already issued a record of decision last year approving the project, which proposes to string together as many as 1,000 turbines across more than 220,000 acres of BLM and ranch lands. Once built, it would have the capacity to produce up to 3,000 megawatts of electricity, making it the biggest power-producing wind farm in North America.

The record of decision authorized BLM to proceed with site-specific environmental analysis for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm, including a 230-kilovolt transmission line, and it was always understood that additional environmental reviews would be needed, including an eagle conservation plan that lays out measures to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts.

Fish and Wildlife’s EIS would consider only the first phase of the project, which covers about 500 wind turbines, as well as a quarry to supply materials for road construction, access roads, a rail distribution facility, underground and overhead electrical and communication lines, and operation and maintenance facilities, according to the notice.

A final EIS approving or denying an eagle take permit is not expected until early 2015, according to the service.

It is not clear whether Fish and Wildlife would issue a five-year take permit, which is the current policy, or a 30-year permit under a proposed FWS rule that would extend the incidental take period.

Kara Choquette, a spokeswoman for the project proponent, Power Company of Wyoming LLC, said the company plans to file a request for a five-year take permit.

But Fish and Wildlife officials say they may also consider the much-debated proposed rule, expected to be finalized by the service during the EIS process, to extend the length of take permits for wind farms to 30 years. The proposal was requested by the wind industry but is opposed by bird advocates.

Mike Dixon, an FWS wildlife biologist in Lakewood, Colo., who is helping develop the EIS, said the service expects the new rule to be finalized long before the analysis of the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project is completed in 2015.

But Dixon said that and other issues still need to be worked out; Fish and Wildlife is scheduled to meet with Power Company of Wyoming officials later this week.

One thing is clear, however: The first phase of the wind power project cannot proceed without a take permit.

Dixon said BLM in its record of decision last year stated it would not issue rights-of-way permits to build the wind farm without a take permit.

How many golden eagles will be allowed to be harmed or killed will be determined by the wind turbine layout and other factors that have not yet been finalized, Dixon said.

But environmentalists say BLM’s final EIS for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project last year concluded that, if built, it could result in the deaths of as many as 64 golden eagles each year.

Power Company of Wyoming is working on an eagle conservation plan that it intends to submit to the service early next month as part of the EIS process, Dixon said.

The conservation plan will be “built on a foundation of years of scientific data-gathering and wildlife monitoring” that is specific to the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre site, according to a statement from the company.

The company has already “deployed an avian radar system along with teams of biologists to map where and when birds might use the landscape in the project area, helping us learn where to place or not place turbines to help avoid and minimize risks,” said Garry Miller, Power Company of Wyoming’s vice president of land and environmental affairs.

Miller also said the company is planning to place about 26,000 acres of the site that has been determined to be prime habitat for the eagles and other species into a conservation easement “where wind development will be precluded.”

“As a responsible energy developer, PCW is demonstrating its commitment to the preservation of eagles by implementing all practical measures to avoid and minimize potential eagle takes,” Miller said in a statement.

Ongoing issues

Once the company is ready to begin Phase II of the project, it will submit a Phase II Plan of Development to BLM for environmental review and a Phase II eagle conservation plan and permit application to Fish and Wildlife for review, according to the company.

The announcement by Fish and Wildlife comes about two months after the agency issued a draft EIS for what could become the first-ever golden eagle take permit to San Diego-based EDF Renewable Energy for its Shiloh IV Wind Project in Solano County, Calif. (Greenwire, Sept. 27).

Fish and Wildlife last month announced the first-ever criminal enforcement of bird-protection laws at a wind energy facility, fining a North Carolina-based energy giant $1 million for killing more than 150 migratory birds, including 14 golden eagles, at two Wyoming wind farms over the past few years (Greenwire, Nov. 25).

The potential impact of the proposed Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm on eagles and other birds has been a source of controversy for some time. A recent report by Fish and Wildlife scientists finding that wind farms have killed at least 85 eagles in nearly a dozen states over the past 15 years did nothing to tamp down the scrutiny (E&ENews PM, Sept. 11).

Conservation groups have long criticized the Obama administration for failing to prosecute wind farms that kill eagles, which are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act

The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project has been among the large-scale wind projects criticized by environmentalists, who ripped the Interior Department last year when it issued a record of decision for the project.

The American Bird Conservancy, one of the nation’s largest bird conservation groups, accused BLM of conducting an “incomplete impact analysis” that will lead to “blatantly bad siting” and the harming of golden eagles (Greenwire, Oct. 10, 2012).

But Miller, the Power Company of Wyoming vice president, said he’s confident the project can be built and placed into operation without causing much harm to golden eagles.

“We’ve worked with top wildlife scientists to design advanced conservation measures so we can further reduce potential risks,” he said.