YAKIMA – One sage grouse, and one sage grouse nest containing broken eggs, might not mean much.
Or it might mean a great deal.
Especially when they were both found on the ridges almost directly between the state’s two existing populations of sage grouse, a threatened species in Washington and a candidate for federal protection status.
And they were found on, of all things, a wind farm.
While those discoveries last September won’t be the focus of tonight’s public presentation by a Wild Horse Wind Facility spokeswoman to a Yakima Valley Audubon-sponsored gathering at the Yakima Area Arboretum, they hold significant environmental interest.
Elk still roam the wind farm’s ridges – by the hundreds during winter, in fact, when the facility’s primary through-road is closed to the public – and other wildlife seem to have adapted to the turbines’ presence.
But sage grouse have remained a major concern.
“The current science is that sage grouse won’t nest near wind turbines,” said Jennifer Diaz, environmental and communications manager at the Wild Horse facility and the featured speaker at the 7 p.m. Arboretum event.
But during avian monitoring that began last year after the wind farm went online in late December 2006 – a biologist inadvertently flushed a sage grouse from a bitterbrush, about 100 yards from a turbine. That was in September; that same month, a sage grouse nest was found on the wind farm.
Although the eggs in the nest had been broken, their contents consumed by predators, the presence of the grouse and the nest were intriguing. The state’s only two breeding populations of sage grouse are about
600 in the sagebrush and tall grasses of rural Douglas County and perhaps
400 in Yakima County, most of those on the Yakima Training Center. In the middle lie the ridges of the Whisky Dick, perhaps 30 miles from one and 20 from the other.
People concerned about the future of sage grouse have for years hoped the two populations might somehow meet in that middle ground, potentially expanding the gene pool and increasing hopes for the species’ survival in the state. But over the years there were only occasional, anecdotal sightings.
Then came onto the Whisky Dick came the
9,100-acre Wild Horse facility, owned by Puget Sound Energy, 127 wind turbines that can supply enough power for about 55,000 households.
Some feared they might end the area’s sage grouse future.
And now that a grouse and a nest have been found there?
“I think it’s still too early to know,” said Mike Schroeder, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife upland bird research biologist considered the state’s foremost expert on sage grouse.
“One, it’s just one nest. I’ve had sage grouse nest in wheat fields where there was absolutely zero chance of success. You have birds that do strange things. I’ve seen them put their nest within a yard of a badger hole.”
On the plus side?
“We didn’t even know we had birds in that area,” Schroeder said. “We’ve had occasional observations up there, but just to find a nest adds additional confirmation.”
Could this nest – which is believed to be the first sage grouse nest found on an operating wind farm, near the turbines – mean wind farms and sage grouse might not necessarily be mutually exclusive?
“It might mean that. Absolutely,” Schroeder said. “Or it might mean nothing.”
Although there has been only one verified case of a sage grouse being killed by a wind turbine – that one in Wyoming – other birds and bats do become turbine victims. But, Diaz said, not as much as people might think.
“Modern wind turbines are definitely less harmful to birds than such things as radio towers, buildings, airplanes, cars, cats,” Diaz said. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has an estimate that house cats kill 1 billion birds annually in the United States alone. Automobiles are up there, (killing) about 60 to 80 million birds a year. For every 10,000 birds killed by human activities, less than one bird is killed by a wind turbine.”
Part of that is due to improvements in turbine design.
“The first turbines were like bird Cuisinarts. They were really bad,” said Michael Martin, conservation chair of the Yakima Valley Audubon Society. “The housing was square, and where the box for the turbine sat, it was in front of the fans. Birds would build nests on top of the fans, and when they’d take off, they’d be sucked into the fan.”
The housing is no longer in front of the turbines, and the blades themselves spin at a slower speed. “They’re more efficient, but have less impact on wildlife,” Diaz said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Not everybody is convinced.
“There are issues – the blades killing birds, the blades killing bats,” said Andy Stepniewski, author of “The Birds of Yakima County” and program chair of the Yakima Valley Audubon. “The bigger issue is the footprint, the habitat fragmentation. The footprint of each one is a lot bigger than one can imagine, because of the size of the machine, the size of the road; these are enormous trucks that bring these huge turbines in there.
“The habitat is significantly impacted. The question is, how do we as a society reconcile the apparent environmentally free cost of wind power? It’s non-polluting, big blades in the sky (that) aren’t spewing carbon dioxide into the air – on the face of it, it would seem to be a fairly benign form of creating energy.
“But when they plunk down into a habitat that’s already disappearing, like shrub-steppe, my reaction is, Whoa.”
Diaz stressed Wild Horse management’s responsiveness to environmental issues.
“We take that very seriously, and we try to minimize the impacts,” she said. In one area, five turbines were originally planned in what the state then determined was prime sage grouse habitat. The turbines weren’t put in, and instead planted 6,500 sagebrush plugs.
In another, where a “species of concern” called hedgehog cactus would be damaged by the construction work, more than
1,000 cacti were removed and then replanted after the construction was completed.
Another 69-turbine wind farm, proposed by a different supplier about three miles southeast of the Wild Horse site, has been recommended for approval by the Kittitas county planning commission but has yet to receive the OK of county commissioners.
By Scott Sandsberry
24 April 2008
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