The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on a plan to fast-track wind energy projects within a 200-mile-wide corridor down the center of the country, including much of South Dakota.
The catch: As proposed, the so-called Great Plains Wind Corridor also would allow an unspecified number of endangered birds to be killed, including the piping plover, the least tern and – most controversially – the whooping crane.
The corridor follows the crane’s migratory path from Canada to the Texas coast, and tracking the project to this central flyway was the whole point, said Marty Tuegel, a planning coordinator in the Fish and Wildlife’s southwestern region.
“The companies understand that there’s a lot of wind potential there for generation, and they also know they have a conflict with whopping cranes in that area,” he said.
Normally, a wind energy company must apply for an “incidental take permit” – “take” is a euphemism for kill – that allows a number of endangered birds to be killed as long as the company has a plan for minimizing such deaths and for conserving habitat.
In this case, a consortium of 19 wind energy companies – including a few that have projects online in South Dakota, such as Iberdrola Renewables and NextEra Energy Resources – have asked Fish and Wildlife to go through the permitting process en masse.
Tuegel stressed that the plan is in its early stages. The agency doesn’t know how many wind projects would be involved, how much electricity would be produced or what form the final permits will take.
That means it’s too early to know how many birds might be killed.
Some conservancy groups, however, worry that issuing the permits will slow population recovery.
“We are very concerned about whooping cranes,” said Kelly Fuller, wind campaign coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy. “The population is simply too small for them to be granting incidental take permits.”
Hunting and habitat destruction almost wiped out the whooping crane, whose wild population has since recovered to an estimated 383 birds.
The take permits would cover turbines and feeder lines, but the biggest known threat to whooping cranes is powerline collisions.
Fish and Wildlife also is in discussions with transmission companies about a similar arrangement, but that effort is much more preliminary, Tuegel said.
There are a handful of South Dakota wind projects in development during the next five years, said Steve Wegman, executive director of the South Dakota Wind Energy Association.
Fish and Wildlife will prepare a single environmental impact statement for all the projects. A draft will be available next year, after a series of scoping meetings in each of the nine states that comprise the project area.
In South Dakota, the meeting will be held Aug. 23 at the Best Western Ramkota in Pierre.
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