RAWLINS – Within the next few months the Power Company of Wyoming (PCW) is expected to clear its last major hurdle, paving the way for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to issue the long awaited right-of-way grant for the first phase of construction on the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is closing in on issuing a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project, as well as PCW’s last federal permit establishing permissible eagle deaths at the proposed 1,000-turbine wind farm.
The draft EIS covers Phase I, which consists of the construction of 500 wind turbines, arterial and access roads, power lines, power transfer facilities, construction staging areas, and other project infrastructure.
Release of the EIS was originally expected in June 2014, with a Record of Decision following. However, at FWS request, the project proponent – Power Company of Wyoming – was asked to hold off submitting the one-page application for an eagle take permit until after a review of the company’s eagle conservation plan.
Serena Baker, Fish and Wildlife public affairs specialist, said a project of this complexity requires time to evaluate.
“I know people appreciate this project is the largest proposed wind based energy project that the Service has reviewed, and we want to make sure that we’ve done a thorough analysis on what the full range of impacts would be,” Baker said.
“We want to make sure we put forth, in front of the public, the best analysis of what those wide ranging environmental issues are, including impacts on eagles. We are on target to release the draft EIS this spring and we’re nearing the end of the preparation for that.”
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to permit take of eagles “necessary for the protection of… other interests in any particular locality.”
This statutory language accommodates a broad spectrum of public and private interests, such as utility infrastructure development and maintenance, road construction, operation of airports, commercial or residential construction, resource recovery, recreational use, etc. that might “take,” or kill, eagles as part of their project.
In all cases, the take must be justified to protect the interest of the project proponent, indicating those interests cannot be protected without taking eagles despite implementation of all practicable measures to avoid and minimize avian impact.
As part of its conservation efforts, PCW has identified 105,000 acres of turbine no-build areas, restricting turbine development at locations where radar data showed were used most frequently by raptors.
In addition, the company will place 27,500 acres of the best habitat into a conservation easement, where wind development will be precluded.
“I think there needs to be offsets like this for any proposed take,” Baker said. “Certainly all the different steps applicants can do help. All of us want to insure bald and golden eagles remain a thriving, sustainable population.”
Although initial estimates by BLM put the raptor death toll at Chokecherry as high as 64 during and after construction, that number will likely decrease in the wake of the Fish and Wildlife’s analysis of the project.
Kara Choquette, communications director for the project proponent – the Power Company of Wyoming (PCW) – pointed out that BLM’s EIS estimates were based on eagle fatalities at other wind farms across the western U.S., many with no eagle conservation efforts or proactive measures to minimize raptor deaths.
“PCW has spent multiple years and invested millions of dollars in gathering wildlife use data across our wind development areas and well beyond,” she previously said. “We’re using science – which is site-specific and the best available – both to inform all turbine siting decisions before they are built and to ensure we’re taking all practical steps to avoid and minimize potential wildlife conflicts during the development phase and during operations.”
To insure its data is scientifically valid, beginning in 2011, PCW deployed MERLIN avian radar at various locations all across the site.
For more than two years, the radar constantly monitored how and where any birds and bats might be using the project area. The data supplemented raptor and avian information PCW had gathered using traditional survey methods.
The stakes are high if the PCW doesn’t get the avian data correct.
In December 2014, PacifiCorp Energy was fined $2.5 million following a guilty plea in U.S. District Court, accepting responsibility for two misdemeanor counts of violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The charges were filed following the discovery of 38 golden eagle carcasses and 336 other protected birds, including hawks, blackbirds, larks, wrens and sparrows by the company at its Seven Mile Hill and Glenrock/Rolling Hills wind projects in Carbon and Converse counties.
With so much on the line, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Baker said.
“Any kind of work that an applicant can do on the front end certainly helps in the long run,” she said. “We are finding in wildlife conservation, cooperative efforts of everyone working together, provides the best outcome for all of us.”
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