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Scientists: Wildlife benefit from careful wind farm placement

No form of energy production is without cost to the environment, even production from renewable energy sources like wind, which poses threats to birds, bats and other wildlife.

But as scientists study wind development and its interaction with wildlife, they’re learning that the best way to keep birds and animals safe is the strategic placement of turbines. Continuing improvement of research methods will yield better information about the daily and seasonal behaviors of wildlife that place them in danger.

Four scientists discussed wind energy and its impact on wildlife during a panel discussion sponsored by the Laramie Audubon Society during a meeting on Oct. 26.

According to society president Tim Banks, there are 17 wind farms in Wyoming right now with another 12 proposed, permitted or under construction. As of July 2010, the Bureau of Land Management had received 140 site testing and monitoring applications, which is the first step in wind energy development.

“Who knows how many more are waiting in the wings,” he said.

Six transmission line projects have also been proposed to carry energy generated in Wyoming to neighboring states.

Sophie Osborn, a wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said the council supports the development of renewable energy sources such as wind, but industrial-scale development has environmental costs such as bird and bat mortality and habitat fragmentation.

The placement of wind farms is a critical element in protecting wildlife, she said. For example, farms shouldn’t be placed near wetlands or riparian areas or in the flight pathways of birds.

Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, agreed that appropriate siting could go a long way toward avoiding wildlife conflicts.

He’s hoping the conservation and wildlife management communities can learn from mistakes made during the early years of the state’s oil and gas development.

“You need to get in before (development) starts, or it’s very difficult to guide development in any meaningful way,” he said.

Both conservation agencies have created reports showing areas of the state where they’d like to see wind energy be avoided because of wildlife concerns, as well as places where conflicts would be few. Caution areas include sage grouse core areas and elk migration corridors.

Scott Gamo, a terrestrial biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said the department is aligned with the conservation community in trying to be proactive rather than reactive as development accelerates.

“We’re trying to get a little bit more ahead of the game than we were with oil and gas,” he said.

Every commercial wind development goes through a permitting process.

Projects with 30 or more turbines must be approved by the state’s Industrial Siting Council.

Projects on federal land have additional permitting requirements.

Karl Kosciuch, an ecologist with the environmental consulting and engineering firm Tetra Tech, works with developers on permitting issues. He said developers generally conduct pre-construction studies to assess a development’s wildlife risk as well as post-construction assessments to determine how accurate the risk assessment was.

“There is a pretty large survey effort that goes on to quantify the potential risk to wildlife,” he said. “A lot of effort goes into this.”

Scientists are learning from these efforts. They know that golden eagles are often killed by turbine blades – which are 420 feet long and moving 180 miles an hour at their tips – because they hunt while flying, and their attention is directed at the ground.

Other birds have trouble because they fly at night, when they can’t easily spot a turbine blade.

“They really are tough things to avoid, for birds,” Osborn said.

Bat mortality might be even greater than that of birds, Molvar said, and too many developments in one area could stress a population to the breaking point.

“With enough projects, you could have a real concern that you could eliminate that bat population,” he said.

One development of particular concern is the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, which could begin construction next year.

Proposed by Power Company of Wyoming, the 1,000-turbine project would cover 100,000 acres of private and BLM land south of Rawlins.

Molvar said there are dozens of known sage grouse leks in the area.

Osborn said a conservative estimate predicts the development would kill 6,000 bats and 5,400 birds a year, including 120 raptors and 36 golden eagles.

“This project is sited so badly that it is environmentally unsustainable,” Molvar said.

Molvar said the Happy Jack Wind Farm west of Cheyenne was done well.

The farm is located in an area with few potential wildlife conflicts, which allowed to be built quickly with little permitting trouble, he said.