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New guidelines would temper wind energy development effects

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants wind energy to benefit people without endangering animals.

The FWS recently released a draft of its voluntary guidelines for land-based wind energy project development in an effort to encourage responsible selection of project locations.

The tougher guidelines could affect the China Mountain wind farm proposed for southern Twin Falls County, among others in Idaho, because they define “mitigation” as avoiding potential wildlife problems. Many of the proposed turbines for that project are closer to sage grouse breeding grounds than what scientific studies recommend.

A stakeholder committee spent three years developing the recommendations FWS used to fine-tune a five-tiered process for project developers to follow. Supported by a scientific review, the guidelines intend to preserve the habitat and populations of endangered and at-risk species.

Included are multi-year pre- and post-construction studies, consideration of noise disturbance, and developer collaboration with FWS before proceeding through each tier of development.

“We’re supportive of green energy,” said FWS spokeswoman Alicia King. “We just want it to be in the right place. Producers usually want that, too.”

In Idaho, wind turbines could threaten the greater sage grouse, identified by FWS as a candidate for endangered species protection. So the guidelines are welcomed by Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists, who can serve in an advisory role on some projects.

Fish and Game staff biologist Mike McDonald said his department isn’t consulted on all projects; it depends on whether the land is public or private, and who the overseeing agency is.

“We encourage proponents to look at the guidelines, and most have been fairly good about it,” McDonald said.

McDonald said China Mountain’s developer, RES Americas, consulted with Fish and Game when examination of the project’s proposed site began in 2008. But subsequent wildfires have made habitat east of the project more critical to sage grouse survival.

“It was always critical but now, it’s even more so,” McDonald said.

The FWS document says that even though the guidelines are voluntary, those who follow them will receive leniency if prosecuted for the loss of threatened species.

King said FWS is asking during the comment period whether the guidelines should be mandatory.

“Many would like to see them mandatory but we want input from all the stakeholders on whether they would be open to that,” King said.