Sunday, May 26, 2013

Feds Publish Final Order Allowing Wind Company to Kill a Condor; Other Wildlife At Risk

The Obama administration published the Record of Decision on Friday that permits Terra-Gen Power LLC to industrialize more of the western Mojave Desert with the Alta East Wind project, and kill at least one endangered California condor without penalty.  The American Bird Conservancy is asking the Obama administration to reverse the unprecedented move to allow the condor death, noting that many private and non-profit groups investing resources in the bird's recovery were blindsided. 

Industrial Transformation of Western Mojave
The wind project - financed by Citibank and Google - will be located near the Tehachapi Mountains and destroy desert tortoise and golden eagle habitat in a region continuously besieged by new new proposals for wind projects.  Wildlife officials admit that the cumulative impact of so much industrialization is difficult to calculate, but Washington's "all of the above" energy strategy typically fast-tracks permits ahead of greater environmental consideration.

The roughly 3.5 square mile Alta East Wind project (approximate boundaries shaded in red) would include habitat used by golden eagles, and potentially by California condors. [click on image to expand]
The Alta East Wind project will consist of 51 giant wind turbines, joining hundreds of other turbines installed by Terra-Gen and other companies along the eastern flank of the Tehachapi Mountains where the iconic Joshua tree and creosote scrub habitat transitions into juniper woodland.  Utility company Southern California Edison has agreed to purchase up to 1,550 megawatts from wind facilities built by Terra-Gen (including Alta East) in the Tehachapi area.

This Google Earth image shows just part of the existing Alta Wind Energy Center, to which the Alta East project will add another 51 turbines outside of this view.  The distance from the turbine rows in this image from nearest to farthest spans over 6 miles.  The turbines dwarf otherwise beautiful rolling hills and open creosote scrub habitat, turning a mostly natural scene into an industrial landscape.
All of this industrialization has taken its toll on the ecosystem.  The nearby Pine Tree Wind project has one of the highest rates of golden eagle mortality per turbine in the country, and Next Era's North Sky River Wind project killed its first golden eagle in January - within weeks of beginning operations.  The Alta East Wind project is expected to add to eagle mortality, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) admits that too little is known about the golden eagle population in the Mojave Desert to know if the deaths will result in the protected species' decline.  The Pine Tree and North Sky River wind projects use the larger turbines that the industry previously claimed are safer for wildlife.

According to FWS documents submitted during the environmental review for the Alta East Wind project:
"The site-specific information collected to date and the golden eagle fatality predictions suggest that the AEWRA [Alta East Wind] is reasonably likely to take eagles, but it is unclear if that take would be at a rate greater than is consistent with maintaining a stable or increasing population. It is unclear to what degree any eagle mortality at the AEWRA would adversely impact the local population due to lack of information on the population in the region, and a lack of understanding of what level of mortality, if any, could be sustained." - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A desert tortoise found on the site of the Alta East Wind project during environmental surveys.  Photo from the environmental impact statement for the Alta East Wind project.

Uncertainty About Condor Protection Measures 
Although lead poisoning still ranks as one of the greatest risks California condors face (the birds die after ingesting lead ammunition left behind by hunters in an animal carcass), the expanding wind industry poses a potentially significant constraint on the condor's future range.    FWS asked Terra-Gen to implement a list of measure to mitigate the chances of a California condor being killed by turbine blades at the Alta East Wind project site.  Although condors typically prefer habitat further to the west of the project, the species' recovery will require it to expand over more habitat and the birds are known to travel long distances outside of normal territory in search of food.  Terra-Gen will monitor a 16-mile buffer zone around the wind project using a human observer and a system that can detect radio frequencies from transmitters attached to most condors.  If a condor flies within two miles of any turbine, the company will supposedly slow down the turbine speed.

Conservationists are concerned for a couple of reasons.  The radio frequency detector is still a new system for energy companies, and relying on a human observer is also imperfect.  It takes at least two minutes just to slow turbines down, so a delay in detection could prove fatal to the birds. Also, condors tend to scavenge for food in groups, so most likely more than just one condor will be in jeopardy if they enter the area.

What is not clear is what will happen if the condors become more regularly active in the vicinity of the wind project due to behavioral changes, or perhaps an expanding population.  FWS says it would consult with the wind company to determine the what action to take if condors begin roosting more frequently near the project.  But the Record of Decision does not say if such a scenario would result in the project being indefinitely curtailed, or if FWS would take actions to harass the birds away from the project, essentially denying condors access to habitat.

The Record of Decision leaves this intentionally vague:
"In the event that a group of California condors moves to within 2 miles of the project boundary (e.g., feeding event or establishing new roost), then Alta Windpower will implement immediate measures, such as real time curtailment to ensure California condors are not killed while the Service, the Bureau, and Alta Windpower convene an immediate meeting to determine what actions are necessary."  - Record of Decision, Department of Interior
Regardless, the wind industry's decision to industrialize the Tehachapi Mountains and western Mojave has severely degraded the quality of habitat for birds and bats, as is already evident with the high raptor mortality.  This sort of region-wide industrialization should be limited, and subject to more thorough cumulative resource planning and management before we take regretful and irreversible steps against nature.

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