GRAFTON – Do black bears and commercial wind projects mix?
There was no clear answer Wednesday night during a talk by a famed New England black bear expert brought in to help raise awareness by the Grafton Woodlands Group, which is fighting Iberdrola Rewewables’ plan to build 28 wind turbines on a high elevation ridge between Grafton and the town of Windham.
Ben Kilham of Lyme, N.H., gave a fascinating talk – “The Social Black Bear” – about his work with black bears, but when questioned by members of the audience, he avoided taking any stand on the Iberdrola project. He wouldn’t even say whether he was in favor of hunting bears.
“I don’t take a position on that,” Kilham said. “My job is to observe and educate.”
Kilham, the author of several books about rehabilitating and raising orphaned black bear cubs, has been featured in documentaries by National Geographic and the Discovery Channel about his work rehabilitating black bears and returning them to the wild. He introduced the large audience to several of his ursine family members: bears he had raised, released and still maintained a relationship with.
In the audience was the leader of Vermont’s Black Bear Project, Forrest “Frosty” Hammond, and the two men have worked together on several projects, Hammond said.
Hammond, a state wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish & Wildlife, said after Kilham’s presentation that the state had opposed another Iberdrola wind project, the Deerfield Wind project in Readsboro and Searsburg, out of concern about the destruction of key black bear habitat, high-elevation beech trees.
But despite the state wildlife biologists’ concerns, the project got a certificate of public good from the Vermont Public Service Board, as well as approval from the U.S. Forest Service, since the project is sited in the Green Mountain National Forest.
Hammond said the PSB had required the state to conduct a study about the effect of commercial wind turbines on bears and the use of their habitat, and he said that the state was about six years into the study, which will take about four more years.
He said Iberdrola had only recently received its final permit to build the project, after there was a legal challenge filed to the U.S. Forest Service’s decision. He said he expected Iberdrola would start clearing land this year to start building the Deerfield project.
He said the study would include information and data collected during construction of the 15-turbine project, as well as after construction is complete and the 30-megawatt project is operating.
Hammond said that the PSB, in addition to requiring the black bear study, also required Iberdrola to adopt several “mitigation” factors, such as purchasing other prime bear habitat and protecting it from development.
Hammond said that the state had not started studying the Stiles Brook forest, which is owned by Meadowsend Timberlands of New London, N.H. He noted that Iberdrola had not even applied for a state certificate of public good yet.
But Frank Seawright, chairman of the Windham Select Board, said a group of Windham citizens had already conducted some studies of the Windham turbine locations, and they found many clusters of beech trees used by the bears close by. He said all of the scarred beech trees used by the bears were at elevations above 2,000 feet.
Seawright, who opposes the Iberdrola project despite significant financial benefits offered by the company, said that a group of five Windham residents had located the proposed turbine sites via GIS (Vermont Geographic Information Service), and then had surveyed the area around where the 20 turbines would be built in Windham.
In all, he said, his group found 130 beech trees that were both scarred by bears, who climb the trees seeking beechnuts, and also contained nests or “baskets” created by the bears as they fed in the trees.
“It’s an inappropriate place for such a project,” said Seawright.
Iberdrola has pledged that it will hold off filing applications for the Stiles Brook Forest project until two public votes this November in Windham and Grafton on the proposal.
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