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U.S. bureau may face suit in defense of Indiana bats

A coalition of conservation groups is threatening to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for issuing an opinion allowing a proposed wind turbine facility on ecologically sensitive Shaffer Mountain to mitigate damage it would do to a maternity colony of endangered Indiana bats.

According to the 21-page notice, sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service Thursday, the service’s biological opinion “inappropriately sidesteps” the preferred option of relocating or significantly modifying the 30-turbine industrial wind farm to avoid killing the bats.

Shaffer Mountain Wind LLC, a subsidiary of Gamesa, a Spanish company with production facilities in Pennsylvania, has proposed building the turbines on Shaffer Mountain ridge, along the border of Somerset and Bedford counties and a major flyway for migrating hawks, eagles and bats.

The 60-day notice of intent to sue, required by the Endangered Species Act when contesting an agency action, was sent on behalf of the Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society, the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, Sensible Wind Solutions, the Mountain Laurel Chapter of Trout Unlimited and two residents living near the turbine site. It cites the opinion of several bat experts who say the project poses “substantial risks” to the survival of the bat colony and even the species.

Michael Gannon, a bat expert and professor of biology at Penn State University, said in the notice that “there is an unprecedented risk to Indiana bats at the Shaffer Mountain project site” and concluded that the project would “jeopardize the species’ survival and recovery efforts.” He urged the consideration of “less environmentally damaging alternative locations.”

The FWS opinion, filed on Sept. 27 with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, proposed minimizing and mitigation of bat mortality but not moving the wind turbine facility off of the ridge.

The 404-foot-tall turbines are planned for a 22,000-acre site in the watersheds of Piney Run and Clear Shade Creek, two of the state’s 28 “exceptional value” streams. The stream designation is reserved for creeks with the highest water quality and biological diversity.

The federal agencies are involved in the permitting of the Shaffer Mountain project because it could impact the streams and wetlands.

“A lot of biological evidence was not considered here,” said William Eubanks II, an attorney for Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal, a Washington, D.C., public interest law firm representing the conservation groups, “so the decision by the service to allow this project to go forward makes no sense from a biological perspective.”

Gamesa, which has proposed the turbines, could not be reached for comment.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field office in State College, Centre County, also did not respond to a request for comment.