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76 environmental groups rally to save whooping cranes from wind proposal

A proposed wind turbine installation in North Dakota poses a threat to the critically endangered whooping crane, of which fewer than 400 remain in the wild, and yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is considering granting a permit for the facility’s operators to kill the cranes, along with federally threatened piping plovers. In response, 76 environmental organizations are demanding FWS conduct a full analysis of the project’s impact – perhaps literal impact – on the birds.

Whooping cranes have been the subject of decades of effort to save the species since hunting and habitat destruction reduced the species to 23 individuals in the early 1940s. Despite this, FWS is considering issuing an incidental take permit for the cranes to the operators of the proposed 100-turbine Merricourt Wind Power Project, in North Dakota’s bird-rich Prairie Pothole wetlands district. An incidental take permit shields the holder from penalty for accidental “take” of a species, up to a limit listed in the permit. Activity ranging from killing the species in question to “harassing” it is regarded as a “take” for the purposes of the permit, but in the specific instance of wind turbine operation, incidental take of a whooping crane is likely to involve a dead crane.

In response to FWS’s considering the incidental take permit for Merricourt, 76 wildlife organizations led by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) signed a letter urging FWS to extend its scoping period on Merricourt and conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement process, rather than the less-thorough Environmental Assessment it has planned. The groups also urged FWS to be more transparent in its process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the law that requires Environmental Impact Statements:

because the project’s new NEPA scoping period has not been published in the Federal Register, the agency has failed to involve the public to the extent practicable. Wildlife organizations, birdwatchers, and members of the public who care about Whooping Cranes and Piping Plovers have not been adequately notified and thereby denied the opportunity to participate. Instead, notice was given by mail to select groups on a private list kept by the environmental consulting firm that was contracted to create the NEPA documentation.

This is not the open process that such landmark species deserve, nor is it in keeping with the intent of Congress when it created NEPA to ensure for informed and meaningful public involvement in environmental decisions. We urge you to initiate an Environmental Impact Statement and because there has not been adequate public notice of the scoping period, to extend it by 30 days and publish notice of the scoping period in the Federal Register

Groups signing the ABC letter include the Endangered Species Coalition, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, many local chapters of the Audubon Society (including several in California), the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, and the Fund for Wild Nature.

“Because there are fewer than 400 individual Whooping Cranes left in the wild, a decision to potentially authorize the killing of any of these birds is of great public concern,” said Kelly Fuller, Wind Campaign Coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy. “This is also a precedent-setting decision that the agency should take the time to make sure is done right.”