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Permit decision close for Chokecherry wind project

RAWLINS – Another milestone has been met by the Power Company of Wyoming as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its final Environmental Impact Statement Thursday on the first phase of the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, with a record of decision to follow.

“(This is the) culmination of a lot of science, a lot of cooperation, and a lot of work,” Kara Choquette, director of communications for Power Company of Wyoming, said in a phone interview. “Our overall goal through all this is how to best preserve the eagle population and to pursue renewable energy production.”

The release of the final Environmental Impact Statement marks the end of a lengthy period of study and review between PCW and FWS, and now all that remains is to wait for the record of decision – the final conclusion of the EIS – to be released. Once it is, it will be clear whether PCW will receive a permit to take gold and bald eagles and achieve a major milestone in finally bringing their wind power project to life.

According to a newsletter from the Fish and Wildlife Service, before a take permit can be granted an applicant must submit a plan detailing their conservation efforts, ensuring consistency with the goal of stable or increasing eagle populations.

“Depending on the final turbine design, CCSM’s estimated maximum take is one to two bald eagles and 10-14 eagles per year,” the release stated. “Compensatory mitigation is not required for bald eagles because their abundance can withstand the impacts of the project. However, golden eagle take must be compensated to ensure the population remains stable.”

The newsletter went on to state that PCW was committed to retrofitting older power poles currently in use that pose electrocution hazards to eagles.

“Permitted take levels are deliberately conservative, meaning that the conservation measures required of the operator will likely exceed their impact, providing a net benefit to eagles and avoiding PCW from exceeding its authorized take level,” the newsletter said.

This means that the FWS would highball the estimated take of the eagles enough to prevent PCW from getting into legal hot water if their eagle take goes over what the permit would allow.

All of these decisions only apply to the first phase of the wind project, which will see 500 turbines built in portions of Chokecherry and Sierra Madre. The process will have to be undertaken all over again when it comes to starting phase two, which completes the project with another 500 turbines.

“We would hope it would be more efficient (to greenlight phase two) because a lot of data gathered for phase one will be relevant to phase two…they should have a great head start to having relevant data,” Clint Riley, assistant regional director for migratory birds with Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a phone interview.

“We also hope it will be more efficient because there will be greater understanding between PCW, the Bureau of Land Management and FWS. There are a number of reasons why we would hope that the process would be more efficient but the fact remains that from our perspective if they apply for a permit on phase two, it’s going to be treated as a separate project.”

Riley said that the FWS “appreciated” how willing PCW has been to consider its technical advice over the course of several years.

It’s taken a long time for the project to get this far in the impact survey process, with Choquette saying they had once anticipated having the project up and running by 2015. For Riley, however, the precedent set by this project could have national precedent.

“This is the first wind project anywhere near this size that would be receiving a permit,” Riley said. “We realize the approach and the standards we use to make these judgments would become a standard to other wind companies. It doesn’t change what we do but we have to be cognizant of that.”

He said he hopes this project would ultimately serve to establish a road map for future state, federal and private entities to follow for future wind developments.

This isn’t the only step forward for PCW’s wind project ambitions: Choquette revealed that the BLM has also announced it will be releasing a record of decision for the transmission line for the project, being done by a PCW sister company called TransWest Express LLC, by the end of the year. That record of decision could award a right of way grant, Choquette said.

The Final EIS is available to the public at https://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/wind/chokecherrySierraMadre/ or in hard copy at the Carbon County Library System in Rawlins or the Saratoga Public Library.