Midway through a two-year study about the potential impacts of a proposed wind farm on golden eagles in northern Nevada, wildlife biologists say they’ve identified nearly a dozen nesting sites in the area of the $200 million project in the mountains 20 miles northeast of Sparks.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is studying the hunting patterns of the protected birds to help determine whether to allow plans to proceed for the 44-turbine wind farm atop the Pah Rah Range overlooking Palomino Valley near Virginia Peak.
“The turbines pose a lethal hazard for the birds,” said Amedee Bricky, a migratory bird biologist for the USFWS regional office in Sacramento.
“The biggest concern is the birds don’t recognize the spinning blades as a hazard,” she told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Several of the 11 nesting sites for golden eagles identified so far are within 5 to 10 miles of the turbines, she said. She said that even though new turbines rotate slower than those of the past, the speed of the blade tips is still fast enough to kill.
Champlin Winds of Santa Barbara, Calif., which purchased the development rights to the Virginia Peak project, also has hired environmental consultants to help study the birds and other wildlife.
Bricky said they have captured several nearby eagles and attached radio devices to track their flight patterns.
“We’ll get a better sense of how the birds are using the area, how they forage,” she said about another year’s worth of research.
The Virginia Peak project was approved by the Washoe County Planning Commission in 2009, and the panel approved several project changes in October 2010.
The environmental study is required before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management decides whether to allow its land to be crossed to get to the turbines, which are all to be built on private lands. The project requires right-of-way to build a road two- thirds of a mile long across BLM land. Four overhead transmission lines also cross federal land.
The project was first developed by Virginia Peak LLC., controlled by Tim Carlson, a former economic development official in Las Vegas. The 44 turbines would produce a peak of 150 megawatts of power.
The development rights were sold about a year ago to Champlin Winds, headed by Michael Cutbirth, who has 16 years in wind energy development. Champlin gained a $50 million infusion from Good Energies, which plans to invest about $100 million a year in renewable energy in North America.
Nevada’s first wind farm, meanwhile, is being built near Ely and is expected to start production this summer. The Spring Valley project, by Pattern Energy Group, is expected to produce 150 megawatts of power from 66 wind turbines.
In November, Pattern Energy abandoned plans for a wind farm near Sacramento in Yolo County, Calif., because of concerns for bald and golden eagles. The San Francisco company is producing 520 megawatts of wind power from its projects and expects to bring 1,000 megawatts more into production in 2012.
In central Oregon, meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last Friday agreed to consider a permit to allow wind turbines to kill a few golden eagles as long as the wind developers make up for the loss.
In Oregon, West Butte Power would be required to retrofit old power lines that are strung so close together golden eagles can stretch their wings and get electrocuted. The permit would allow three golden eagle deaths over five years.
But Bricky said there are a lot more eagles in the Pah Rahs than near the West Butte project.
“You have to pick and choose where you put turbines,” she said. “There are places less hazardous to eagles than others.”