Mike Guerry may appear to be a traditional rancher, but he’s trying to change that.
There’s no escaping ranching tradition for him. For a century, Guerry’s family has run sheep and cattle on the same land – some privately owned and some public – in south-central Idaho.
But times are changing for the ranching industry, particularly sheep ranching, and some traditions face difficult challenges. Guerry said rather than subdividing and selling his land, he’s trying to become what his forefathers never imagined: a partner in a wind farm.
While still an unconventional undertaking, wind farms have become more common in the area, especially over the past five years. Each year, wind companies partner with more landowners to erect clusters of turbines between the sugar beet and potato fields of southern Idaho.
But Guerry’s potential partner, Renewable Energy Systems Americas, isn’t proposing to sell a few sparks to Idaho Power from a dozen wind turbines on flat farmland. RES has for eight years worked toward developing a 100- to 200-turbine installation on China Mountain in southern Twin Falls County, primarily to sell electricity to Las Vegas.
The project is one of a handful causing turmoil for conservationists.
On one hand, it would produce clean, renewable energy. But the mostly wild, public land of China Mountain is home to a host of species, most importantly the greater sage grouse.
As with ranchers, the times are changing for the sage grouse and not for the better. Wind farm development adds to the threats facing the few grouse populations remaining in the Jarbidge area.
One by one, organizations weighing the land against the wind are concluding that more green energy doesn’t outweigh the risk to sage grouse.
The BLM hurdle
In mid-October, RES hosted a Twin Falls luncheon to provide project updates and ask attendees to comment on two U.S. Bureau of Land Management documents: the Jarbidge office draft Resource Management Plan, released in September, and the wind farm’s upcoming environmental impact statement.
In addition to small parcels of private and state land, the wind farm would spread across 30,000 acres of BLM land. Because the land belongs to all, BLM must decide whether a wind farm is its best use and weigh the project’s effect on other possibilities. As such, BLM approval of a right-of-way lease remains the main hurdle for RES.
In general, BLM favors allowing wind power on public land. More than 50 BLM land-use plans have been amended to allow for wind power.
The BLM Jarbidge draft includes five potential wind policies, and the final recommendations chosen could last for another 20 years.
The more restrictive the policy, the harder it could be for RES to gain its lease.
So it can’t be encouraging that the BLM’s preferred choice curtails the use of wind power in the area in favor of habitat restoration for the struggling grouse.
Sage grouse in trouble
Sage grouse populations are decreasing throughout the West, a primary cause being loss of sagebrush habitat to wildfire and development.
Scientists can’t predict exactly how wind farms will affect sage grouse because few studies exist. But many agree their effect will be detrimental, and some groups want development stopped at least until more is known.
Perhaps most important is the looming effect of tall turbines.
“Grouse avoid anything that resembles a tree because of raptors,” said Oregon Natural Deserts Association spokesman Matt Little, who opposed an Oregon wind project in 2010. “Even if hawks can’t perch on turbines, the grouse don’t know that.”
Guerry said he has friends in Wyoming who have allowed 20 turbines on their land in sage grouse territory. He said they haven’t seen any problems with grouse.
But a preliminary study in Carbon County, Wyo., indicates there are concerns. Scientists found that near turbines, the number of males displaying in leks – grouse breeding grounds – dropped steadily from 2008 to 2010. Nesting success was also low compared to other Wyoming populations.
The BLM started similar studies in southern Utah and central Oregon, and a collaborative that includes RES said this spring it’s eyeing long-term studies on the subject. But those results won’t be known for at least a few years.
An additional complication is that sometimes effects can be delayed; sage grouse declines due to oil and gas development weren’t seen until four to 10 years after construction.
“Sage grouse populations respond slowly,” said Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist Dave Musil. “Population growth of 4 percent is good. So anything that knocks them down is going to further slow any recovery.”
For almost two decades, Fish and Game biologists have tracked sage grouse surviving on Brown’s Bench just east of China Mountain. They know the birds are in trouble.
One indicator showed up in lek counts. The 186 males courting hens in 2006 dwindled to 29 by 2010. As a result, biologists closed the area to sage grouse hunting this fall.
Sage grouse aren’t migratory but can wander as far as 50 miles from their nests before returning. Fish and Game biologist Brad Lowe plotted the movements of about 700 radio-collared birds in the Jarbidge area and found they regularly travel over China Mountain, although they don’t go east of Salmon Falls Creek. Wind turbines could impede with their movement.
“Forty percent of the flight paths cross the proposed right-of-way area,” Lowe said.
Biologists know of at least 10 leks on Brown’s Bench and more surround the project area to the north and west. Some of the Jarbidge plan proposals require that turbines be at least 3 miles away from leks. That would eliminate 30 turbines planned for the northern part of the project.
But if the BLM has its choice, the distance between leks and turbines will be 5 miles. This would eliminate turbines in all but the middle third of the project area. Approximately 66 turbines would remain – not enough to fulfill RES’ promise of 200 megawatts to NV Energy.
The 5-mile buffer is supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has named the sage grouse as a candidate species for federal protection.
Sage grouse conservation
Sage grouse nationwide are doing so poorly that in March, Fish and Wildlife said they warrant endangered species protection. They weren’t listed because the agency said other species are in worse shape. But that won’t be the case if sage grouse suffer more losses.
If sage grouse were listed, the China Mountain project likely wouldn’t happen. The Endangered Species Act regulates a lot of activity once a species is listed, which is partly why local sage-grouse working groups have worked to preserve populations.
“The priority is keeping the birds off the ESA,” said local working group facilitator Mike Pepper.
RES knows the wind farm faces resistance because of the sage grouse and in turn developed its own sage grouse conservation plan. It will be submitted as part of the wind farm’s environmental study, which BLM Jarbidge Field Manager Rick Vander Voet said should be released in February if all goes well.
RES hasn’t released its plan to the public. But spokeswoman Suzanne Leta Liou said the company would provide on-site restoration activities, evaluate the project’s impacts on sage grouse and identify ways to make up for them. One of the big selling points is that research on Brown’s Bench sage grouse can provide information for other projects.
The Jarbidge local working group has seen the conservation plan but members didn’t say whether they support it. They plan to discuss and comment on the separate BLM resource plan this month.
“RES is promising $15 million in mitigation money,” said Pepper. “But does that get you through 30 years?”
Unlikely to back out
Wind farms are still somewhat new to the region, so it’s kind of the Wild West as far as what’s allowed. Few siting regulations exist to protect animals and each project can become the next battle.
In mid-December, the Idaho Conservation League joined with the National Wildlife Federation, the Audubon Society and five other organizations to ask RES to withdraw its China Mountain proposal.
In a letter to RES, the groups say they might not have questioned the project a decade ago. But now, the project threatens too much of the grouse habitat that remains after recent, massive wildfires.
Almost half of the region was already in “poor” condition when the last Jarbidge plan was written in 1987. Then, the 2007 Murphy Complex Fire alone destroyed 70 percent of the area’s remaining sage grouse nesting habitat. Subsequent fires, including this year’s Long Butte Fire, have burned additional swaths into the sagebrush.
“We expect that RES … is committed to forward thinking on environmental issues and to responsible project siting,” the letter stated.
“This is one exchange in a long, involved conversation,” said ICL spokeswoman Lara Rozzell. “We’ve been joined in our concerns by the BLM and sportsmen, and we want to encourage (RES) to look at other places.”
The Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project sent a similar letter in October, saying that mitigation for the loss of sage grouse wouldn’t be sufficient to preserve the populations.
RES already has 40 operational wind farms across the U.S. and Canada producing more than 4,100 megawatts. Another six are under construction that would produce another 1,000 MW.
Pulling out of China Mountain may have minimal effect on the company’s bottom line, but RES isn’t likely to give up now.
“RES firmly believes in developing an environmentally sustainable project,” Leta Liou said when asked if RES would consider withdrawing. “We believe firmly that this project will provide a net benefit to wildlife in the area.”
The reason RES chose China Mountain in the first place is that it’s an oil gusher of the wind world.
It is one of the few places in southern Idaho with winds rated as “excellent” to “outstanding,” according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
RES continues to verify the wind data with nine measuring towers installed around the China Mountain site. Leta Liou said RES received approval to install a tenth tower on private land, but has to wait until spring.
“Our in-house data team has found this site is one of the best areas in Idaho and Nevada,” she said. “Just a little change in the resource results in a big change in price.”
ICL and others in turn point to the glut of Idaho wind projects popping up on sites with less than optimal wind.
“We are working with other conservation groups and renewable developers to identify the best places for renewable energy in Idaho,” Rozzell said. “(China Mountain) is too special to lose right now, and we can’t see how to replace it.”
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