Saturday, May 11, 2013

Obama Administration: Wind Industry Allowed to Kill Condors

Update: I have heard that the authorization to allow Terra-Gen to kill California condors may not be under an "incidental take permit," but some other allowance under the Endangered Species Act.  Either way, the green light to kill California condors is a significant step in how we protect and recover this endangered species.  When more details are available I will write a follow-up post.

In a shocking move against wildlife and wildlands, the Obama administration announced on Friday that wind energy company Terra-Gen could kill endangered California condors without penalty near Tehachapi, California, according to the Los Angeles Times.  This is yet another indication that the Obama administration's clean energy platform is motivated not by a desire to protect the environment, but instead to cater to corporations -- Washington has failed to put in place mandatory guidelines that would require companies to build wind facilities away from important bird habitat.  Many in the conservation community have called on the Obama administration for more sensible siting decisions to generate renewable energy in our cities, and away from sensitive wildlands.

Terra-Gen is the first energy company to receive a permit to kill California condors but it probably could have operated its facility without a permit because the Fish and Wildlife Service still has not taken decisive action against other wind operators that have killed protected species, including golden eagles, without permits.   Although the Obama administration claims that the permits give the wind industry necessary assurances that their profits will not be jeopardized, no such certainty of existence is available for our wildlife and treasured landscapes in this uncoordinated policy approach that favors corporations in nearly every ad hoc decision.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe claimed that the threat to condors would be mitigated by the wind industry's voluntary use of bird radars to detect the presence of endangered birds, and the industry's voluntary commitment to shutting down turbines when the birds are detected.  Unfortunately, neither the bird radar technology, nor the wind industry have a good track record.  The radar technology is considered experimental, and Terra-Gen's decision to build a large wind facility in condor country itself is evidence of the company's disregard for wildlife concerns.  Any condors that may nest nearby will be imperiled by the proximity of the wind turbines in the Tehachapi region, and this habitat can essentially be considered lost to the species.

According to a Fish and Wildlife Service consultation letter from 2011 that is included in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for a Terra-Gen wind project in the Tehachapi area, wind development in the area is expected to pose a significant threat to the birds:
"Given the behavioral ecology of California condors (e.g.,the importance of experienced individuals in teaching recently released birds how to survive and their habit of gathering in large numbers at a single carcass), we consider avoidance of mortality of California condors to be the only acceptable conservation strategy at this point in time.  In particular, because of their feeding strategy, we are concerned that many individuals could be killed by wind turbines during a single feeding event." - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
More comprehensive conservation is needed in the Tehachapi and western Mojave region to protect condors, but such action will have to consider the fate of multiple proposed wind energy projects that would add to hundreds of existing wind turbines there.   The Fish and Wildlife Service has formed a specific subgroup that is examining the potential impacts of wind energy development on the condor, but in typical fashion, pressure from Washington where industry lobbyists are hard at work has resulted in land and wildlife management decisions ahead of conclusive research.

The California condors' recovery is still threatened by lead ammunition, urban sprawl, and now booming wind industry development within its historic range, in addition to the impacts of human-induced climate change.  Now is not the time to allow industrial sprawl within its range that could result in the loss of these birds.

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