A world’s-largest scale wind farm proposed for Oliver and Morton counties could snare and kill a migrating endangered species.
Whooping cranes pass through those counties flying between northern Canada and Texas and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned that an explosion of wind farms up and down the Great Plains’ flyway will further endanger the rare birds.
The agency charged with protecting the enormous white cranes will meet with the Public Service Commission next week to talk in general about the problem. It will meet in Denver later in the week with 30 wind companies working the Great Plains region.
If all the parties can agree to what’s called a “habitat conservation plan” for the cranes it would be the largest in number of states and participants ever developed by the federal agency.
“It’s on the table now because we’re seeing such a rapid increase in the number and size of wind power projects. The pace has really increased in the last year,” said USFW’s North Dakota field supervisor Jeffrey Towner.
Starting in 2010, Florida Power and Light plans to install 667 turbines across the hills of Oliver and Morton counties which are on the Coteau flyway angling north to south.
The gigantic twirling turbine blades are less a problem than the invisible-to-birds transmission lines that go along with them, Towner said.
The flock that passes through here is the only self-sustaining colony of whooping cranes and the largest of three in the country. Under federal protection, like the bald eagle, the Wood Buffalo-Aransus colony is making a gentle comeback with 266 members compared to only 30 or so counted back in the ’40s.
Towner said the agency knows of 46 whooping cranes killed since 1956 from striking power lines.
Towner said the agency can’t force wind developers to change location or bury power lines, for example, unless the projects get federal funds. Hefty federal tax credits for wind developers don’t count.
However, if a company needs an interconnect transmission agreement from the Department of Energy, they may require a permit for “taking” the endangered species.
The USFW is starting the conversation in North Dakota and continuing it in Denver in hopes wind developers will get on board a regional plan to protect the birds.
Participation gets developers out from under stiff federal fines and penalties for killing endangered species, though those are unlikely to apply anyway, Towner said.
“It (a conservation plan) could happen, based on the companies’ willingness to enter into it,” Towner said.
The $2 billion Oliver-Morton project would result in $2.6 million in annual lease payments to landowners who have turbines on their land.
It will be at least a year before the regulatory agency receives a formal siting application from Florida Power and Light, said commissioner Susan Wefald.
Wefald said the PSC will look at endangered species issues when siting the wind farm under state law that provides for exclusion and avoidance areas.
Four calls to Florida Power and Light were not returned for comment on the whooping crane issue.
To view a map of the proposed wind farm site, go to www.bismarcktribune.com/wind.
By Lauren Donovan
11 July 2008
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