News that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued its first-ever “Incidental Take” permit for the California Condor was announced Friday afternoon at a press conference in Lebec unveiling the Tehachapi Uplands Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.
Federal officials joined Tejon Ranch Co. in announcing a 141,866-acre habitat conservation plan that gives the company assurance that its proposal for a large resort community in Lebec complies with the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Under the plan, called the Tehachapi Uplands Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, 129,000 acres on the ranch will be permanently conserved, including a 37,100-acre ridge line area set aside as a condor study area.
At a ceremonial signing event outside Tejon’s Lebec headquarters, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Daniel Ashe, said the plan allows the company to “harass” but not kill California condors and 24 other species in the course of its operations across 52 percent of the 270,000-acre ranch.
The plan is seen as an important component of the ranch’s plans for additional residential and commercial development, largely in the area south of Bakersfield.
While federal and ranch officials hailed the plan for increasing protection to two dozen species, critics say it doesn’t address the loss of condor habitat with the planned development. They contend the biggest threats to condors are lead poisoning and the loss of foraging and roosting spaces on the ranch.
Adam Keats, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued to prevent development, called the plan “a joke.”
“There’s no habitat conservation happening. It’s a habitat destruction plan,” he said.
Pushed nearly to the brink of extinction in the 1980s, California condor numbers increased after the last wild ones were trapped and taken to zoos for a breeding program. Many of the California condors in the state use Tejon as a foraging ground.
Besides the California condor, species covered under the plan include the least bell’s vireo, Southwestern willow flycatcher, Western yellow-billed cuckoo, Tehachapi slender salamander and bald eagle.
Terra-Gen and the condor
A Los Angeles Times report late Friday that said the wind company Terra-Gen also will be allowed a lethal “take” of a condor although Terra-Gen has apparently not been issued a permit to that effect.
On Monday, Stephanie Wegley of the Ventura office of the USFWS said Terra-Gen has not been issued an “incidental take” permit for the condor, but the USFWS has provided the Bureau of Land Management with a “biological opinion” concerning the Condor and a Terra-Gen project. She referred questions about that document to the BLM.
Efforts to reach the BLM and Terra-Gen officials concerning the matter were unsuccessful before press-time Monday.
Terra-Gen’s Alta East project is proposed on private and public (BLM) land in an area about 11 miles east of the City of Tehachapi. According to a BLM document, 2,024 acres are on public land and 568 acres on private land.
Kern County supervisors approved the Alta East wind energy project near Mojave in January, including a requirement that it use high-tech tools to protect condors.
The project could produce up to 318 megawatts of electrical energy from 106 wind turbines. That’s enough to power about 95,000 households in a year, according to Linda Parker of the Kern Wind Energy Association.
The project is medium-sized when compared to some of the other major projects in Kern’s wind energy area, including earlier phases of the Alta Wind effort.
According to comments made in January by Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt, the restrictions Kern County placed on the project will apply to the sections on BLM land as well.
Those restrictions include a new way of attempting to protect the endangered California condor from being hit by spinning turbine blades.
The county will require developer Terra-Gen Power to install a monitoring system designed to detect condors outfitted with radio transmitters and have a person shut off wind turbines if the birds get too close.
Oviatt said the condors have not been seen over the project site but the county is requiring the radio-monitoring system because condors could move into the area in the future.
But the system has limitations, officials from the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in a letter to the county in January. “Only about half of the free-flying condors” have radio transmitters, the environmental group said.
Oviatt agreed the project still poses a significant threat to birds and said that county supervisors would be acknowledging that threat if they approved it.
In an article in Forbes magazine published in January 2012, the expanding range of the condor was seen as a barrier to continued wind development in the Tehachapis because a “single death could be catastrophic for the wind industry, the regional economy and, not least, the condor.”
Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun wrote in an article published late Friday that USFWS Director Ashe “said operators of Terra-Gen Power’s wind farm in the Tehachapi Mountains will not be prosecuted if their turbines accidentally kill a condor during the expected 30-year life span of the project.”
According to the LA Times article, USFWS was “encouraged by the increasing number of wind farms considering using radar units and experimental telemetry systems designed to avoid harming birds. Those systems are being designed to identify incoming species early enough to switch off the massive turbines and then – to minimize costs and maximize profits – turn them back on again as quickly as possible.”
What is ‘incidental take?’
If the term “incidental take” isn’t familiar to you, don’t feel bad. Other than bureaucrats, environmentalists, a few newspaper reporters and land developers who find their projects compromised by the existence of endangered species, most people don’t have a need to learn about Section 10 of the federal Endangered Species Act or similar state law that allows the potential of harm to otherwise protected species.
“Take” is widely defined by the law and can include harassing, harming, hunting, shooting, wounding, trapping or actually killing an endangered or threatened species.
There are times that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with enforcing the law – or the California Dept. of Fish and Game (charged with enforcing similar sate law) – will issue a permit that allows a “take” under certain circumstances.
For instance, farmers and fishermen may participate in programs showing that they’ve made efforts to avoid harming endangered or threatened species and also making report of any harm – such as killing an endangered creature while plowing a field or accidentally catching a protected fish in a net.
Without such a permit, the farmer or fisherman might face criminal charges.
For the wind industry, permits have been issued for a number of species but the permit issued to Tejon Ranch is the first known “incidental take” permit the USFWS has issued for the California Condor.
JOHN COX AND JAMES BURGER of The Bakersfield Californian and CLAUDIA ELLIOTT of the Tehachapi News contributed to this story.