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Enviros aflutter over Idaho wind farm impacts to sage grouse

"It will be appealed and litigated to block it, and I think there's a good chance it can be stopped," Marvel said. "The Browns Bench and China Mountain area is acknowledged by all as a key, core area for the survival of sage grouse. It's ridiculous they even started the process to put in a wind farm at this location."

A proposed large-scale wind farm in Idaho and Nevada that would become Idaho's largest wind power producer could cause significant harm to prime habitat for the imperiled greater sage grouse, according to a recently released federal document.

The Bureau of Land Management last week issued a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the China Mountain Wind Project, which is proposed to cover more than 30,000 acres of mostly federal land that the Energy Department ranks as having some of the best wind power potential in the West. The wind farm includes 26,000 acres in southeast Idaho and 4,700 acres in northern Nevada, and would have the capacity to produce 425 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power about 170,000 homes.

But the China Mountain project's 170 wind power turbines would sit in the heart of a densely populated greater sage grouse stronghold. Despite elaborate mitigation plans that include limiting operations during the grouse's breeding season and replanting the sagebrush steppe that is critical to the survival of the chicken-like bird, the draft EIS concludes that the project would cause long-term impacts to the grouse that might be unavoidable.

BLM's draft environmental impact statement... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

A proposed large-scale wind farm in Idaho and Nevada that would become Idaho's largest wind power producer could cause significant harm to prime habitat for the imperiled greater sage grouse, according to a recently released federal document.

The Bureau of Land Management last week issued a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the China Mountain Wind Project, which is proposed to cover more than 30,000 acres of mostly federal land that the Energy Department ranks as having some of the best wind power potential in the West. The wind farm includes 26,000 acres in southeast Idaho and 4,700 acres in northern Nevada, and would have the capacity to produce 425 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power about 170,000 homes.

But the China Mountain project's 170 wind power turbines would sit in the heart of a densely populated greater sage grouse stronghold. Despite elaborate mitigation plans that include limiting operations during the grouse's breeding season and replanting the sagebrush steppe that is critical to the survival of the chicken-like bird, the draft EIS concludes that the project would cause long-term impacts to the grouse that might be unavoidable.

BLM's draft environmental impact statement for the China Mountain Wind Energy Project concludes that the project could have significant impacts on the greater sage grouse that extend well beyond the project area. Photo courtesy of BLM.

The proposed wind farm could also result in the deaths of hundreds of raptors in fatal collisions with wind turbine blades and electricity transmission lines, and tens of thousands of migratory birds and bats over the 30-year life of the project, according to the draft EIS.

"It's a very good wind spot, but it's very difficult from an environmental standpoint," said Scott Barker, a BLM project manager overseeing the China Mountain wind project in Twin Falls, Idaho.

The draft EIS is open for a 90-day public comment period through July 6. A final EIS is not expected until March 2012, and a record of decision authorizing the project likely would not occur until the end of 2012, Barker said.

Environmental groups say they are very concerned about the proposed project's impacts to the greater sage grouse and its ever-dwindling sagebrush steppe habitat. In addition to the footprint of the wind turbines, 83 miles of all-weather gravel roads and 19 miles of new overhead electricity transmission lines would need to be built, as well as three electrical substations and two operation and maintenance facilities, according to the draft EIS.

The China Mountain wind farm project would impact 22,500 acres of prime sage grouse habitat, likely resulting in the grouse abandoning as many as 24 breeding areas, called "leks." This, in turn, "would have a major long-term adverse effect" not only on local sage grouse populations, but also "beyond the regional analysis area," according to the draft EIS.

"Given that sage-grouse populations in the Northern Great Basin, including the project analysis area, have been steadily declining for at least 20 years, impacts of the wind project would further contribute to the downward trend in populations," according to the draft EIS.

Mitigation efforts

Renewable Energy Systems Americas Inc., based in Broomfield, Colo., is developing the project with Las Vegas, Nev.-based NV Energy Inc., which needs the wind-generated electricity to help it meet a state renewable energy standard requiring 25 percent of the utility's retail energy sales come from renewable sources by 2025.

RES Americas has developed a detailed sage grouse conservation plan that is under review by BLM. The plan includes a commitment by the company to establish a $16 million grouse conservation fund.


The China Mountain Wind Energy Project would affect numerous sage-grouse breeding areas, likely causing the birds to abandoned them, according to a draft environmental impact statement. Map courtesy of BLM.

But most of the mitigation measures appear to be off-site from the China Mountain project site, critics say.

"It's unclear to me how off-site mitigation will directly help the sage grouse populations that will be displaced by the China Mountain project," said Brad Brooks, deputy regional director for the Wilderness Society in Boise, Idaho. "There are public lands in Idaho where there can and should be wind energy development, but this is not one of them."

Representatives with RES Americas declined to answer detailed questions about the project or the draft EIS.

Suzanne Leta Liou, the company's development manager in Portland, Ore., said in an e-mailed statement that the draft EIS "is a major milestone" for the project and that both RES and NV Energy believe the project "will provide a net benefit to the economy and environment in Idaho and Nevada, while at the same time creating jobs and achieving greater energy independence."

Part of the company's reasoning, according to Liou, is that the wind farm would help reduce carbon dioxide emissions linked to global warming by about 800 million pounds a year -- equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 100,000 cars and trucks.

Liou also pointed to the company's proposed sage grouse conservation plan. In addition to the $16 million conservation fund compelling the company to long-term pre- and post-construction surveys and monitoring, the plan commits the company to helping BLM develop alternative project layouts to avoid interfering with sage grouse leks.

Mitigation is 'fantasy'

But the sage grouse issue remains a major potential roadblock.

The Fish and Wildlife Service last year named the greater sage grouse a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection. But the agency, citing a backlog of ESA-eligible species, decided not to extend full protection to the bird, though it will review the bird's status each year and any sudden decline in population could prompt FWS to declare it endangered.

The main threat to grouse from the China Mountain project is not the spinning turbine blades or transmission lines, but the loss of habitat.

Sage grouse population counts in leks across southern Idaho's Magic Valley region, which includes the China Mountain project, "have declined precipitously" in the past five years, said Mike McDonald, a staff biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Grouse counts in the sensitive Brown Bench area, which is a key grouse wintering habitat within the proposed China Mountain project boundaries, have declined by 59 percent since 2006, according to state statistics cited in the draft EIS.

McDonald said wildfires, urban development and meteorological factors have all contributed to population declines in the past five years. The grouse populations appear to be rebounding slightly in the valley, but in Brown Bench the grouse are lagging behind, he said.

"This is an area that is key sage grouse habitat, and it's part of a core population," he said. "Whether this project moves forward really hinges on our ability to mitigate these effects."

Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project in Hailey, Idaho, said he does not see anything proposed by RES Americas or BLM that mitigates the impacts of the proposed project on sage grouse and their dwindling habitat.

"When you disturb a landscape with as much development as China Mountain is proposing, with the huge expanse of roadways and ancillary wiring and transmission lines for distribution, you're not talking about things that can be rehabilitated at a later time," Marvel said. "That is fantasy."

Migratory birds

Another major environmental concern outlined in the draft EIS is the potential impact to golden eagles, raptors and numerous other migratory birds in the area.

The proper siting of wind farms has become a major issue with federal regulators and conservation leaders.

The Fish and Wildlife Service in February released federal guidelines for siting and operating wind power projects in a way that minimizes harm to migratory birds, eagles and bats (Land Letter, Feb. 17).

And Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy Inc., this month scrapped a $400 million wind farm project in southeast North Dakota due primarily to concerns by FWS that the Merricourt Wind Project's location could harm two federally protected birds -- the whooping crane and piping plover (Land Letter, April 7).

The 100-turbine Merricourt project was expected to generate as much as 150 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power about 60,000 homes.

The American Bird Conservancy, which has lobbied for tougher regulatory standards on the siting and operation of utility-scale wind farms, has urged the wind power industry to make it a top priority to site proposed wind farms away from migratory bird pathways.

The China Mountain wind project, however, could kill an estimated 720 raptors during the 30-year life of the wind farm, according to the draft EIS. In addition, BLM estimates in the draft EIS that as many as 30,000 migratory birds and 25,000 bats could be killed during the project's 30 years of operation.

Still, BLM lists the impacts to birds as "moderate," though RES Americas will be required to submit a bird conservation plan that must be approved by FWS before the company will be authorized to build the wind farm, said Barker, the BLM project manager.

That plan is currently being developed, Barker said, and will include additional surveys for raptors and golden eagles.

But the issues with the sage grouse and migratory birds will almost certainly lead to legal challenges if BLM authorizes the project, said Marvel, the Western Watersheds Project official.

"It will be appealed and litigated to block it, and I think there's a good chance it can be stopped," Marvel said. "The Browns Bench and China Mountain area is acknowledged by all as a key, core area for the survival of sage grouse. It's ridiculous they even started the process to put in a wind farm at this location."

Click here to read the draft EIS.


Source: http://www.eenews.net/Landl...

APR 14 2011
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