A clash is brewing between the endangered condor and the growing wind energy industry in Southern California, with thousands of megawatts and billions of dollars at stake.
On one side is the California condor, the largest bird in North America, able to soar as high as 12,000 feet and 150 miles a day. Of the 200 condors in the wild today, 59 live in the Hopper Mountain and Bitter Creek national wildlife refuges in Ventura and Kern counties.
On the other side are wind-power turbines already built or on the drawing board in Kern County. As the birds grow in number and expand their range – soaring on the high winds toward Lake Isabella, the Tehachapi Mountains and the Sierra Nevada – they could be carried into the blades of turbines, some environmentalists worry.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club filed a federal lawsuit this month against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to stop the proposed 100-turbine North Sky River wind project in Kern County’s Tehachapi region. The groups say a neighboring wind farm, Pine Tree, has killed at least eight golden eagles and that condors are at risk, too.
“GPS data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggest condors are in the area, which has a lot of grazing and hunting and is a good habitat for these birds,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re really worried. We don’t think it’s the right place for additional wind farms, and we certainly don’t want to see a wall of wind farms that no bird can outmaneuver.”
Yet no condors have been killed yet, and wind-power supporters cite the new jobs, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and clean energy the turbines will bring.
SHARING SOME SPACE
The turbines, which in 1.5-megawatt models stand as tall as a 30-story building, bear blades that can sweep an area the size of a football field 20 times a minute, with tips spinning as fast as 200 feet per second. Each of these turbines can power about 500 homes.
About 5,000 turbines already are in use in the blustery Tehachapi Mountains, mostly older models generating a total of about 800 megawatts of electricity. In the planning process or under construction are an additional 3,500 megawatts worth of wind turbines – the equivalent of more than five average coal-burning plants. The North Sky River project, proposed by NextEra Energy Resources, would generate 300 megawatts.
According to Linda Parker, who leads a wind energy advocacy group, “the wind rush will bring billions … in total investment to the Kern County area over the lifetime of these projects.”
Also under construction is a new high-capacity power line by Southern California Edison. The Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, at a cost of about $2 billion, will be able to safely carry thousands of megawatts from the new wind farms south to Los Angeles, officials say.
But all this energy development could be at risk if condors are killed by turbines, conservationists and wind industry advocates largely agree.
“Condors and wind energy occupy the same space,” John McCamman, named in March to lead the Fish and Wildlife Service’s condor recovery program, said of the Tehachapi region. “The range of the condors, given their success, is expanding quickly into that same area where wind energy companies are expanding.”
Michael Woodbridge, public information officer for the Hopper Mountain and Bitter Creek refuges, agreed.
“Kern County is developing a wind energy zone in the Tehachapis, where there is good wind, but a lot of that area also is where condors pass through on their way up to the Sierra,” he said.
PROTECTED AND PRICELESS
The California condor was near extinction in the late l970s, with only 22 birds in the wild. After much debate, the birds were captured in an attempt to save the species. Today, more than half of the condors live in the wild.
Most of the Ventura County condors fly triangular routes between Hopper Mountain north of Fillmore, Tejon Ranch north of Santa Clarita and Bitter Creek near Maricopa. But some fly much farther.
One is a 3-year-old dubbed 428, whose mother was the last condor born in the wild before the captive breeding program began in the mid-1980s. Like her parents, 428 likes to take long flights, including to the Tehachapis, say biologists who track all the birds.
No one knows for sure what would happen if 428 or other condors, who often travel together, are killed by wind turbines. Ask Jesse Grantham, a recently retired Fish and Wildlife biologist who worked with condors for decades at Hopper Mountain and Bitter Creek, and he smiles tightly.
“Let’s just say this: It’s never happened yet,” he said this month while showing visitors around the Bitter Creek refuge.
The condors are protected not only by the Endangered Species Act but also by an older federal law, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This law holds anyone who kills a protected bird “strictly liable,” meaning operators of turbines that kill a condor could in theory face criminal charges.
In February, two golden eagles were found dead at Pine Tree, a 250-megawatt wind farm operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Six other golden eagles have been found dead at the 2-year-old facility, and biologists determined they were killed by turbine blades. The Fish and Wildlife Service has not sought charges against the wind farm operators, even though golden eagles are protected by federal law.
In a Fish and Wildlife biological assessment prepared last year for the nearby North Sky site, analysts warned that GPS data on condors indicated they spend most of their time in the area flying at an altitude of 600 feet or less, and like buzzards and other birds that condors are known to follow, they could be hit and killed by turbine rotors.
“Based on this information, a wind energy facility where California condors commonly occur would likely be a risk for a lethal take of this species,” analysts Greg Johnson and Shay Howlin wrote.
Fish and Wildlife has made it clear it will not allow the killing of any condors. McCamman hinted in an interview that his agency would not accept a mere fine for the death of a condor, either.
“There’s no putting a price on this kind of conservation effort,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘OK, that bird’s worth $1.4 million.’ ”
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