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Wind farm seeks permit for bat kills

MORGANTOWN – The operator of a southern West Virginia wind farm has asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a permit that would allow the “incidental take,” or killing, of endangered bats that might fly into its turbine blades.

To comply with the terms of a lawsuit settlement, Maryland-based Beech Ridge Energy is seeking a 25-year permit for its wind farm in Greenbrier and Nicholas counties. The existing 67 turbines and another 33 that are planned could harm Virginia big-eared and Indiana bats.

The Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute and the Williamsburg, W.Va.-based Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy had sued both Beech Ridge Energy and its parent, Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, in 2009.

Beech Ridge built 40 turbines before a federal judge in Maryland ruled that it had failed to obtain the necessary permit.

Fish and Wildlife is now taking public comment through Oct. 23 on the company’s proposed habitat conservation plan and an environmental impact statement.

The permit application is the third of its kind in the nation, said Deb Carter, West Virginia field office supervisor for Fish and Wildlife.

The other two are also currently out for public comment. One is for Buckeye Wind LLC’s proposed project in Champaign County, Ohio, while the other is for Criterion Power Partners in Garrett County, Md.

The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to harm or kill federally threatened or endangered wildlife.

The Indiana bat has been has been on the federal endangered species list since 1967. Though it’s found over most of the eastern U.S., nearly half the known population hibernates in caves in southern Indiana. The 2009 population estimate was about 387,000, less than half of what it was when the species was listed.

The Virginia big-eared bat is non-migratory and inhabits caves year-round in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina, with the largest concentrations in West Virginia. It’s been listed as endangered since 1979. Fewer than 400,000 are believed to remain.

An incidental take permit would allow the bats to be killed, as long as Beech Ridge takes “reasonable and practical measures” to avoid harming them.

The wind farm is about 20 miles northwest of Lewisburg and currently operates year-round under conditions that Fish and Wildlife says are not likely to take endangered bats. Those conditions will remain in effect while Beech Ridge works through the permit process, Carter said.

Under the settlement, the turbines can spin 24 hours between mid-November and April 1 when the bats are hibernating. They can only operate during daylight hours the remaining 7.5 months, when the bats are active.

The state Public Service Commission approved the wind farm in 2006, but it took a state Supreme Court ruling to clear the way for construction. Local residents had also sued, claiming the project would harm property values and views.