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In growing trend, Wyoming wind project seeks permit to kill eagles

The Power Company of Wyoming plans to apply next month for a federal permit that will allow the firm to kill a limited number of eagles every year at its planned Chokecherry-Sierra Madre wind farm in Carbon County.

The decision of the Denver-based developer to seek what is known as an “eagle-take permit” from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reflects what may be the beginning of a trend, industry observers said.

Fish and Wildlife has never granted a take permit to a wind developer, but is currently considering several applications, said Dave Carlson, National Environmental Protection Act coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Chokecherry-Sierra Madre would join that list of applicants, he said.

“We should be seeing more of them in the future,” Carlson said. “This would apply to existing projects that are in operation and new projects.”

Fish and Wildlife will determine how many eagles can be killed under the permit after receiving an application for the project.

The expected increase in eagle-take applications comes months after the service clarified the rules surrounding eagle deaths at wind facilities. The new guidelines allow wind developers to kill a limited number of eagles each year, provided they make efforts to site turbines in locations that minimize fatalities and institute mitigation measures once their facilities become operational.

It also follows on the heels of a settlement announced by the U.S. Department of Justice in November in which a North Carolina developer agreed to pay $1 million in fines and restitution for avian deaths at its wind farm near Casper.

Garry Miller, Power Company of Wyoming vice president of environmental affairs, said the company’s application for a take permit and the Justice Department settlement were coincidence. The firm has been in talks with Fish and Wildlife since 2010 over how to best minimize the number of eagle deaths at Chokecherry-Sierra Madre. The proposed 1,000-turbine development would become one of the largest on-land wind facilities in the United States if built.

The project has been plagued by concerns about its impact on birds. The Bureau of Land Management approved the wind farm in 2012, calling its impact on migratory birds and bald eagles low. But BLM also noted that the threat it presented to golden eagles was significant, and projected the development would kill 46 to 64 eagles annually. A plan to reduce golden eagle fatalities could reduce the impact, the bureau said.

That is what the Power Company of Wyoming is trying to do, Miller said. He noted the company has proposed putting 26,000 acres along the North Platte River between Fort Steele and Sinclair in a conservation easement where wind development would be prohibited. That area is crucial golden eagle habitat and boasts considerable wind resources, Miller said. The company has also proposed a half-mile buffer around eagle nests.

Still, Miller acknowledged avian fatalities are a part of wind development.

“Unfortunately it does happen,” he said. “What we’re doing is being proactive and trying to avoid and minimize the potential risk to eagles.”

The number of wind developers seeking take permits will likely increase in the coming years, as companies look to pursue projects in areas boasting both high winds and key bird habitat, said Darin Schroeder, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy, a national advocacy group.

His organization does not oppose wind development, but believes more stringent sitting laws are needed to ensure projects are not built in environmentally crucial areas, Schroeder said.

Chokecherry-Sierra Madre is especially concerning, he said, arguing that internal concerns from BLM and Fish and Wildlife staff about bird fatalities have been ignored for political reasons. The project is one of 33 renewable energy developments authorized on public land by the Obama administration, as part of its initiative to produce 10,000 megawatts of green electricity.

The project received BLM authorization despite the finding it posed a threat to golden eagles, Schroeder said.

“I think it’s safe to say we are very troubled this project continues to go forward,” he said.

Fish and Wildlife will consider Power Company of Wyoming’s take application as a part of the agency’s current environmental evaluation of the wind farm. Two public meetings regarding the project are scheduled for next week. Fish and Wildlife is expected issue a final decision on the project in early 2015.

The take permit applies to the project’s first phase, which calls for building 500 turbines in the western part of the project area. The company, a subsidiary of Anschutz Corp., will seek a second take permit if it pursues a planned second phase. In all, the project is expected to produced 2,000-3,000 megawatts of electricity.