Is the California condor becoming the Obama administration’s albatross?
The Fish and Wildlife Service has given approval for a proposed wind farm in Kern County, Calif., to “take” – that is, injure or kill – one condor over the project’s 30-year lifetime.
That move, the first take the federal government has allowed for the endangered condor, has made odd bedfellows out of wildlife advocates, who say one dead condor is too many, and critics of the administration, who say it shows a bias for renewable energy and against fossil fuels.
The proposal in question – Terra-Gen Power’s 318-megawatt Alta East wind farm – has made some concessions to condor safety that pleased wildlife advocates, including relocating some wind turbines and installing a system that would shut down turbines when radio tagged-condors approach.
But allowing even one condor death is the start of a slippery slope, says Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that frequently sues the government over wildlife issues.
“I do think one is significant with the very small number of condor, and then it’s a precedent – there could be two; there could be five. I mean, where is the number that would be too many?” she said. “We get into a very complicated numbers game. The condor has such a narrow hold right now, and it really has started to come back, but we don’t want the first thing that happens [to be] they get killed by a windmill.”
Belenky said the center wants to review the FWS’s biological opinion on the project before deciding on next steps. The service prepared the opinion, which contains the condor take, for the Bureau of Land Management. An FWS spokeswoman said the opinion technically anticipates, but does not authorize, a condor take and that the opinion will be released in about two weeks, once BLM signs a record of decision.
The administration’s acknowledgement for the first time that a wind project can take one condor represents a conflict that has been a long time coming: Wind farms are growing, and condor habitats are expanding.
The wind industry has seen this coming for some time, John Anderson, the American Wind Energy Association’s director of siting policy, said, and “we are in a much better place than most would be, because we have considered this as a potential growing conflict, and as a result, have come up with cutting-edge technology,” such as the radio tag system to shut down turbines.
There are currently 404 living condors, 234 of which are living in the wild, according to a FWS report issued in March.
FWS Director Dan Ashe disclosed his agency’s decision at a Friday press conference in California on a separate condor habitat conservation agreement.
“This is the first time we’ve authorized incidental takes of California condors – and we’re approaching them very cautiously,” Ashe told the Los Angeles Times.
The American Energy Alliance, the political arm of the energy industry-funded Institute for Energy Research, has used the new plan to criticize the Interior Department as hypocritical.
On Monday, AEA posted an image on its Facebook page juxtaposing photos of a condor and ground meat. AEA says it is also running the image as a Facebook ad.
And that’s likely to be just the first salvo if any of the condors are ever killed by a wind turbine, since the recovery in the number of the birds is widely seen by the public as an endangered species success story.
That’s a PR issue the wind industry is hoping to avoid by not killing any condors at all, Anderson says.
“We would hope that the developers would work proactively with the stakeholders, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, to have messaging and be able to demonstrate that they have done all that they possibly can to avoid, minimize and mitigate that loss,” he said.
Wind turbines have yet to kill a condor, AWEA says, but reports of turbines killing other birds – in particular, eagles – have made the renewable power source an increasingly popular target for critics of the Obama administration who see a double standard that penalizes the oil and gas industry for bird deaths.
Sen. David Vitter, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, slammed the news of the condor permit.
“The administration is clearly hand-picking which migratory bird mortality cases to pursue with an obvious preference to go after oil and gas producers,” the Louisiana Republican said in a statement to POLITICO.
Besides the condor take permit, Vitter pointed to a Minnesota wind farm that is seeking a permit for takes of bald eagles.
The AP on Tuesday reported that FWS is investigating 18 bird death cases from wind projects and has referred seven to the Justice Department.
That news comes after Vitter and Sen. Lamar Alexander in January complained to DOJ about the lack of prosecutions over bird deaths from wind turbines. The subject of penalizing oil and gas companies for bird deaths was even brought up by Mitt Romney last year during a presidential debate.
“Basically, the federal government has issued a condor hunting permit to big wind companies. Federal law designed to protect a species from extinction doesn’t distinguish between oil and gas companies and wind farms,” Alexander said in a statement on Tuesday.
While compiling data on the number of bird deaths is largely guesswork, the wind industry says more birds are killed each year by cars, cats or flying into buildings than from wind turbines.
As for the slippery slope, the FWS says it is accepting condor take applications one at a time.
The agency announced on Friday a conservation plan to protect condor habitat while allowing some development to move forward on Tejon Ranch Co.’s land in California’s Tehachapi Mountains. That agreement prohibits any killing of condors but does allow for occasional “harassment” in case condors enter construction areas.
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