A proposal to build the country’s largest wind energy project south of Rawlins is drawing heat from environmental groups.
The Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance is considering legal action because of its concerns that the Chokecherry Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project would devastate local sage grouse and golden eagle populations.
The project, which calls for the construction of 1,000 wind turbines on 219,707 acres of land in Carbon County, won initial federal approval last week.
The move allows construction to begin as early as 2013 if the project passes other site-specific environmental studies.
Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, criticized the government’s decision to advance the project.
He argued the site should be moved to the High Plains to the east of the Laramie Range to lessen the impact on the environment.
“The area (for the planned development) is a core area for sage grouse,” he said. “This is really sensitive land.”
Barbara Parsons, a member of the South Central Sage-grouse working group, said the wind turbines are a threat because sage grouse instinctively avoid tall structures.
“They see any tall structure where predators can perch on as a danger,” she said. “So they won’t locate their nests or leks by them.”
She added the birds don’t relocate well and could die off.
Molvar said the turbines would also be in the path of migratory birds, such as gold eagles.
Despite the concerns, the federal officials and the Power Company of Wyoming, which is the running the project, say steps are being taken to mitigate the environmental impact.
Kara Choquette, director of communications for the Power Company of Wyoming, said the company is working closely with federal and state agencies to make sure the important species are protected.
She said this includes their plan to not add developments in areas that were designated sage-grouse core areas by the Governor’s Sage-Grouse Implementation Team.
“(The Power Company of Wyoming’s) wildlife studies not only go above and beyond what was required for the (environmental impact study) but also reflect an unprecedented level of pre-construction data gathering and analysis,” she said in an email. “We have and continue to work closely with (the Bureau of Land Management) and other federal, state and local authorizing agencies to avoid, minimize and mitigate potential impacts of this clean, renewable wind energy project.”
Mark Sattelberg, a field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the government is in the process of studying the sage-grouse issue and working with the Power Company of Wyoming on a strategy to protect the birds.
He said this includes collaring the birds with radio tags so their movement can be tracked and studied.
He added other studies are under way to develop an avian protection plan and eagle conservation plan.
He said regardless of the location, any wind farm can impact birds and other wildlife.
“But I think we are going to minimize the impact that these turbines will have on the wildlife,” he said
But Molvar said he is unconvinced those mitigation strategies will work.
“You can fiddle around with all those small scale tweaks, but the real impact is where you (locate the wind farm),” he said.
Molvar acknowledged that the wind farms are better for the planet in terms of climate change than traditional energy production, such as oil, gas and coal.
But he said wind farms are still “industrial facilities” that can have just as much as an impact on the local environment as drilling.
He said the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance is assessing its legal strategies to see what can be done next.
He said the group is open to legal intervention, but he did not know when a decision would be made.
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