FWS eagle-impact study advances massive Wyo. wind project

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 22, 2016

The Fish and Wildlife Service has completed a yearslong analysis of potential impacts to bald and golden eagles of authorizing construction of the first 500 turbines in a southeast Wyoming project that’s projected to become one of the world’s largest wind farms.

The draft environmental impact statement (EIS) does not name a preferred alternative out of four choices studied for the first 500 turbines that comprise phase I of the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project.

Power Company of Wyoming LLC, a subsidiary of Denver-based Anschutz Corp., has applied for two eagle “take” permits that would cover the construction of the 500 turbines, as well as the operation of the first phase of the project.

But the draft EIS for the proposed action for phase I developed by PCW estimates that — depending on the size of the turbines — operation of the first phase would take no more than two bald eagles and 14 golden eagles annually. Take covers death or injury of the birds, but also loss of productivity or abandonment of nests.

The eagle take permit for operation of the first 500 turbines would last five years, and PCW would need to reapply every five years during the expected 30-year life of the project.

The eagle take permit for construction is for a four-year period and would be in place from the time construction begins later this year until the first turbine is placed into operation, in either 2019 or 2020.

“Renewable energy has the ability to reduce America’s carbon footprint and slow the rate of climate change, benefiting humans and wildlife alike — including eagles. Yet projects of this size can impact wildlife and other natural resources in myriad and complex ways,” Noreen Walsh, regional director for Fish and Wildlife’s Mountain-Prairie Region, said in a statement. “Our goal is to ensure that this and other wind energy projects proceed in a manner that balances renewable energy goals with conservation needs, and to avoid and minimize — to every extent possible — impacts to our eagle populations.”

The draft EIS will be published in the Federal Register in the next week, kicking off a 60-day public comment period. The subject of wind power plants and impacts to eagles and other sensitive bird species has been controversial, and the draft document is likely to garner a lot of public comments.

The draft EIS comes a little more than a month after the Bureau of Land Management approved the siting of the first phase of a massive project that’s expected to eventually string together 1,000 turbines across about 220,000 acres. The full project would be capable of producing up to 3,000 megawatts — enough to power nearly a million homes, making it the largest electricity-producing wind farm in North America, if not the world (E&ENews PM, March 9).

FWS must also issue a letter of concurrence agreeing with the siting of the turbines and possibly recommending additional measures to protect birds, bats and especially the greater sage grouse, which occupies areas in and around the massive private ranch owned by Anschutz where the project site is located.

PCW has proposed an extensive eagle conservation plan and has agreed to compensatory mitigation measures that include retrofitting as many as 3,778 electricity power poles in the region that are at high risk for bird electrocution, according to the draft EIS.

“PCW would work with us and with utilities to identify power poles with high risk to eagles and then develop a power pole retrofit plan for our approval” as part of the eagle take permitting process, the draft EIS says.

Mapping turbines, nests

PCW has spent years and millions of dollars in an effort to map the exact locations of the turbines so they avoid at-risk wildlife.

That included detailed eagle and raptor nest and use surveys across Anschutz’s 320,000-acre Overland Trail Ranch, where the wind farm will be built over the next decade.

The company sent crews on all-terrain vehicles across a 460,000-acre area on and around the massive ranch. The company and its consultants completed 5,000 hours of eagle and raptor use surveys, as well as avian and bat radar surveys across more than 280,000 acres.

PCW also worked with FWS and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to develop a bird and bat conservation strategy for the first phase.

“PCW is implementing all practicable measures to avoid and minimize potential eagle take. Most significant, we’ve used years of science to guide all turbine siting, including fine-tuning the [Chokecherry and Sierra Madre] Project Phase I layout through six major data-driven revisions,” said Garry Miller, PCW vice president of land and environmental affairs.

“We worked closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and expert environmental consultants throughout the process to develop a wind project that meets the high conservation standards that an eagle take permit requires.”

Though only a draft EIS, the document is a major milestone for the project, because an eagle take permit is necessary before construction can begin.

Fish and Wildlife has scheduled two informational open house meetings on the draft EIS on June 6 in Saratoga, Wyo., and June 7 in Rawlins, Wyo.