Groups split over sprawling Wyo. project’s wildlife impacts

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, July 9, 2012

Environmentalists who have studied the Bureau of Land Management’s final analysis of a massive Wyoming wind farm proposal are split over the project’s merits and its potential impacts to greater sage grouse habitat and federally protected golden eagles.

On one hand, Laramie, Wyo.-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance this week released a scathing critique of the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project, proposed by Power Company of Wyoming LLC. The project proposes to string together as many as 1,000 turbines across more than 220,000 acres of BLM and ranch lands in southeast Wyoming and would have the capacity to produce up to 3,000 megawatts of electricity, making it the biggest power-producing wind farm in North America.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar this week unveiled a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project, telling reporters during a conference call “there’s no doubt that this project has the potential to be a landmark project for the U.S. and the entire world” (E&ENews PM, July 2).

The Obama administration has made it a priority to complete the federal permitting process for the project this year. Mike Pool, BLM’s acting director, said this week that the agency plans to issue a final record of decision (ROD) authorizing the project this fall.

“We need more wind power as a clean, renewable alternative to fossil fuels, but the Chokecherry project is sited in a terrible location and will result in unacceptable impacts to birds, from sage grouse to eagles,” said Erik Molvar, a Biodiversity Conservation Alliance wildlife biologist.

Molvar also questioned the proximity of some of the proposed wind turbines to sage grouse breeding areas, called leks.

“Sage grouse also get as little as a quarter-mile buffer, which means that 22 leks with active populations in and near the project area face destruction,” he said. “With this project, the BLM is repeating the senseless mistakes of so many oil and gas projects in Wyoming, projects that landed the sage grouse on the brink of endangered species listing.”

He also noted numbers in the final EIS estimating that the project could result in the annual deaths of as many as 64 golden eagles.

“Historically, Wyoming has been a stronghold for eagles, a source for population expansion in other states,” he said. “But this project raises the concern that Wyoming may become a population ‘sink,’ which means that populations would decline here and be unable to replenish themselves.”

But Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society’s eight-state Rocky Mountain region based in Fort Collins, Colo., bristled at the criticism.

Rutledge said officials with Power Company of Wyoming (PCW) worked closely with Audubon and environmental regulators to site the wind turbines away from core sage grouse areas. “I helped negotiate them out of core habitat before they got their permits,” he said. “Basically, we’ve protected the sage grouse there.”

And PCW has taken significant steps to mitigate impacts to golden eagles, going so far as to place radar equipment across the 220,000-acre project area to study bird movement and flight patterns. The company is using that data to “microsite” the individual turbines in ways that mitigate impacts, he said.

“They know more about the birds on their property than anyone ever has,” he said. “It’s been an aggressive approach on their part. They’re doing everything they can.”

Still, Rutledge acknowledged there will be impacts. “If we’re going to have wind farms there, you’re going to kill eagles,” he said.

“Would I prefer if we didn’t have to build energy stations of any kind out there? Sure. But what kind of world is that? Let’s just be a little realistic,” he said. “They’re working hard to minimize the impact. I don’t know what more we can ask.”

BLM, project developer confident

BLM acting Director Pool noted this week that the agency spent three years on the environmental analysis of the project in an effort to ensure that impacts are kept to a minimum.

And Salazar added that he is confident the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm has been adequately reviewed and will withstand scrutiny.

Indeed, the project proponent has worked closely for the past two years with the Fish and Wildlife Service and others to develop an Eagle Conservation Strategy “based on traditional survey data and an extensive avian monitoring program,” said Kara Choquette, a spokeswoman for PCW, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Denver-based Anschutz Corp.

Choquette said in an emailed statement to Greenwire that the results of the survey and monitoring “do not support the estimated annual golden eagle fatalities cited in BLM’s final EIS.”

She added: “PCW’s wildlife studies not only go above and beyond what was required for the EIS but also reflect an unprecedented level of pre-construction data gathering and analysis. We have and continue to work closely with BLM and other federal, state and local authorizing agencies to avoid, minimize and mitigate potential impacts of this wind energy project.”