Groups urge feds not to allow harm to eagles at huge proposed Wyo. wind farm

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, February 14, 2014

Two conservation groups, including one of the nation’s largest bird advocacy groups, are urging the Obama administration not to grant a special permit to harm or kill eagles at a proposed wind farm in Wyoming that would be among the world’s biggest.

The American Bird Conservancy, along with the Laramie, Wyo.-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, submitted a 15-page letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service expressing concerns about impacts to golden eagles if the massive Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project is built as proposed in southeast Wyoming.

The Bureau of Land Management already issued a record of decision in late 2012 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.

Fish and Wildlife announced last year that it will conduct a detailed environmental impact statement (EIS) for the 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, likely for the entire 30-year life of the project (Greenwire, Dec. 4, 2013).

But there’s simply too little information about eagle populations in the region to know what mitigation strategies would be most effective to protect eagles and to justify a possible eagle take permit, the groups said.

Though Fish and Wildlife is evaluating several possible eagle take permits for wind projects nationwide, the agency has never issued one to date. The Interior Department last year finalized a new rule that would allow renewable energy and other projects to obtain permits to injure, kill or disturb bald and golden eagles for up to 30 years.

“Common sense, business sense, and scientific integrity all demand that FWS first establish a pilot eagle take permitting program, specific to wind energy generation facilities,” the two groups wrote in their letter to FWS. “Such a pilot program, involving only small wind energy generation facilities, is needed to assess ‘on-the-ground’ effectiveness of eagle permitting.”

Until that’s done, they wrote, there is “absolutely no experiential data to back up the effectiveness of the eagle take permit requirement.”

“The serious gaps in data and key information surrounding both the project and the proposed permit make it impossible to conclude that appropriate protections for eagles are being followed under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act,” said Michael Hutchins, national coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign.

Representatives for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project proponent, Power Company of Wyoming LLC, could not be reached for comment by publication time.

But the issue of potential impacts to eagles has been a source of much debate during the permitting of the wind project.

BLM’s 2012 record of decision authorizing the project stated it would not issue rights-of-way permits to build the wind farm without a take permit. The record of decision only authorized BLM to proceed with site-specific environmental analysis for the 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.

But environmentalists note that 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.

The Power Company of Wyoming has taken issue with BLM’s estimates. Company officials have said during public hearings on the project that BLM overestimated how many eagles could be killed and that the company has planned measures to keep that number much lower (Greenwire, Dec. 24, 2013).

Fish and Wildlife’s EIS for eagle impacts at the site will evaluate 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.

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

Garry Miller, Power Company of Wyoming’s vice president of land and environmental affairs, said last year that 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.”

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.”

But there’s not enough information to know whether those measures and others will be sufficient to limit harm to eagles, said Duane Short, wild species program director for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

Short said there’s not enough data on eagle flight patterns and movements in the area.

“Sufficient definitive and long-term data simply does not exist to assure this colossal wind farm will not severely impact eagle and other bird populations in this important wildlife area,” he said. “In fact, the data that do exist suggests just the opposite — that significant impacts will occur.”