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Wyoming renewables boom prompts study of pronghorn and wind development

From mule deer in the gas fields to sage grouse in coal country, Wyoming knows quite a bit about how its staple industries affect wildlife.

That is less true of large wind developments anticipated in central Wyoming that will share a habitat with one of the largest antelope herds in North America.

Wyoming is facing a wind boom that could dwarf the familiar groupings of turbines on the road from Casper to Laramie. Located along the same corridor of high winds, projects like the proposed Chokecherry and Sierra Madre farm farther south in Rawlins and the TB Flats wind farm, halfway between Casper and Laramie in Medicine Bow, will erect hundreds of steel towers on the landscape rather than dozens.

In response, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, in collaboration with the University of Wyoming’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit, are launching a study at the 500-megawatt TB Flats development to measure big wind’s impact on pronghorn from construction to operation.

“It’s such a scale, we just want to make sure we know everything we can,” said Lee Knox, a wildlife biologist for Game and Fish’s Laramie region. “So any future projects, if there happen to be any impacts, we can mitigate.”

TB Flats was recently chosen by Pacificorp, Wyoming’s largest utility, as one of three new wind farms in Wyoming. Construction at the 52,000-acre site is expected to begin early next year. An Industrial Siting Committee meeting is set for June 21 in Rawlins.

The study will collar 60 does and follow them over a period of six years, with an eye on potential habitat fragmentation or under-use.

The area where these new wind farms will be located is a largely undisturbed habitat, even by Wyoming standards.

“One of the reasons it is the largest herds is that for the most part it is an intact sage brush ecosystem, where pronghorn are able to migrate long distances from their summer to winter range, move somewhat freely throughout their range,” Knox said.

The Medicine Bow pronghorn herd is largely unstudied as a result. There hasn’t been a reason to research them, Knox said.

“We know generally, have mapped out winter ranges, but with collars we are going to learn a lot,” he said.

Pronghorn have been studied before, at the Dunlap wind farm, a PacifiCorp project. The turbines did not appear to affect pronghorn behavior very much, but it was a smaller project, Knox said.

Wind has not avoided criticism in Wyoming for its impact on wildlife, largely regarding birds killed by turbine blades.

In 2015, PacifiCorp pleaded guilty for the deaths of 38 golden eagles and 336 other protected birds at its wind farms in central Wyoming. The company paid $2.5 million in fines and restitution.

The Pioneer Wind Project south of Glenrock was contested in part by locals concerned about the migratory birds, eagles and raptors that swoop through that region of the Laramie Range.

Current state sage grouse plans discourage wind development in crucial habitat until more is understood about how the finicky birds react to wind.

Sage grouse, a bird that neared an endangered species listing two years ago, are often found in windy areas, where the low scrub of sage brush offers them shelter. They tend to avoid tall structures where predatory birds perch.

The Chokecherry Sierra Madre wind project, a potential 1,000-turbine wind farm south of Rawlins, may provide an answer to the question of wind and the grouse. The Power Company of Wyoming hired an environmental group out of Colorado to track more than 300 grouse that live in the development area and track their behavior over time.

As with sage grouse, Wyoming is home to a majority of the pronghorn population. About half of the species live in the Cowboy State.

Sy Gilliland, vice president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, said the epicenter of wind development is a prime spot for antelope.

“It’s a very popular hunting area,” he said. “Probably one of the reasons it’s a treasure is there is a lot of public land out there.”

The association doesn’t have an official stance on wind energy, he said.

From the perspective of Gilliland, who owns SNS Outfitter & Guides in Casper, people appear hesitant to criticize wind energy because it’s green energy and has a politically correct attraction. But as a Casper native, he doesn’t want to see more wind development between Casper and Laramie and neither does anyone he knows.

“There is just a whole lot of affection for that route and that tranquility that you felt out there,” he said.

The impact of wind, whether on the landscape or the antelope population, just isn’t known yet, he said.

“I’m just a Wyoming boy, I don’t know,” Gilliland said. “I can’t stop it.”