As temperatures rise to scorching heights here in the Eastern Sierra, it’s difficult not to think about the coming effects of climate change; hotter summers, colder winters, drier droughts and wilder storms. California is one of many states looking to develop renewable energy resources to help stave off the effects of climate change, whether through solar projects, geothermal plants, or increasingly controversial wind turbine farms.
The idea is a good one: offer federal and state incentives to further the growth of the renewable energy industry, and protect not only humans, but also many thousands of species and their habitats across the globe from the impacts of global warming. Controversial, however, is the fact that wind turbines in particular may impact the very species that federal and state agencies have sought to protect since the creation of the Endangered Species Act, which celebrated its 40-year anniversary this year.
In May of this year, California set what many conservationists believe is a dangerous precedent regarding wind turbines and endangered species. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) accepted a single “take,” or mortality, for the endangered California condor over the 30-year lifespan of the Alta East Wind Project, a proposed 153-megawatt wind farm in the Tehachapi Mountains of Kern County. Parent company Terra-Gen, aware that the project site lies adjacent to a known condor habitat, made several promises to mitigate impact, halving the number of proposed turbines from 106 to 51, and agreeing to install a condor detection and avoidance system on the remaining turbines.
The detection and avoidance system tracks endangered condors using radio telemetry. Should the system detect a condor radio transmitter, carried by each bird re-introduced to the wild, the turbines will first slow, then shut off completely. The system has a detection range of 25 kilometers.
“I saw a demonstration, and it was pretty amazing,” said Garry George, Renewable Energy Director and Chapter Network Director at Audubon California, who worked with the Alta East Wind Project. “The system feathers the turbines, like a sailboat sail, until they shut off. It took less than a minute,” he said.
In addition to the detection and avoidance system, Terra-Gen has also pledged to contribute $100,000 to the Condor Recovery Program, as well as a program to abate lead in the area. Lead remains a primary threat to growing condor populations; when condors scavenge carcasses or gut piles left by hunters and ingest lead fragments, they are susceptible to death by lead poisoning. According to a report from The Peregrine Fund, four of the eight wild condors that died in Arizona and Utah in 2012 died from lead poisoning.
With these mitigation measures in place, the Alta East Wind Project may now “take,” or kill, one California condor over the 30-year lifespan of the project. California condors, the largest North American land bird, became extinct in the wild in 1987. Beginning in 1991, the birds were reintroduced to Arizona, Utah, and California. Today, about 250 California condors remain in the wild.
The BLM decision regarding the Alta East Wind Project is “not a license to kill condors,” said Garry George. Instead, the take authorization protects Terra-Gen from litigation, should one condor die at the wind turbine site. According to a May 30 article in Scientific American, (“Does Controversial Decision Pit California Condors against Wind Turbines?”), killing an endangered species usually results in fines of up to $200,000 for corporations, or even jail time for individuals, neither of which the company would face if a condor dies from a collision with the turbines at Alta East.
However, should a single condor die at the Alta East wind farm, the project would immediately cease operations. The BLM would require Terra-Gen to take further measures to ensure no subsequent condor death at the site.
George noted that this is not the first time a federal agency has considered a “take” on an endangered or threatened species. According to the Chicago Sun Times (“Wind farms get pass on eagle deaths”), the Obama administration recently proposed a regulation to allow “take” on bald or golden eagles. The proposal would allow wind energy companies to apply for 30-year “take” permits, like the take authorization granted to Terra-Gen, rather than the standard 5-year “take” permit. George explained the reasoning behind this: “First, there is a lot of unauthorized take going on,” he said. This way, “Developers come in and apply for a permit, and in exchange, they have to develop an eagle protection plan. The hope is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will get a chance to actually do something.”
The potential impact of these rulings are far from abstract here on the Eastside, where a birding enthusiast can spot a bald and golden eagle on the same day at Lundy Lake. Only two years ago, Italian company Enel Green Power proposed a wind turbine farm with as many as 30 turbines on the ridge and valley near Black Lake outside of Benton. The proposal was withdrawn in part because of potential impact to the golden eagle population in the area.
Before that, renewable energy company EWind sought to build a 160-wind turbine farm in the Adobe Valley and Granite Mountain areas. This project was sidetracked due to environmental concerns about the impact to sage grouse, a candidate for listing under the ESA.
One potential wind turbine site remains in Inyo County: in 2010, the Little Lake South Wind Project was granted a permit in 2010 to place three meteorological towers for the purpose of assessing wind resources near Pearsonville. That assessment is ongoing.
Bird conservation groups received the news of the May BLM ruling regarding the California condor “take” with dismay. According to a media release from the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), “ABC is calling on the Department of the Interior to reverse the decision, charging that allowing the legal killing of one of the most imperiled birds in the United States threatens endangered species conservation efforts across the country.”
Locally, Friends of the Inyo Director Paul McFarland spoke to his own concern with the decision. “I think that was kind of horrifying, the idea that here’s a species that millions and millions and millions of dollars have been spent on, one of the rarest birds in North America, and that the ESA is unable to protect that,” he said. “What does that leave for the rest of the [endangered] species?”
Pete Pumphrey, President of the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society, could not comment publicly on the issue; however, he said, “I know that [the BLM decision] is controversial. It’s the same problem that everyone faces: there are a lot of good reasons for renewable energy, but everything has a cost. You have to make a decision about whether or not you want to pay it, or can pay it.”
In the U.S., the estimated cost of wind turbines to avian species is 440,000 bird mortalities per year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released this number in 2009 and has not revised it since, and in 2012, researcher K. Shawn Smallwood estimated closer to 573,000 bird fatalities per year from wind turbines.
One of the challenges of addressing the problem of bird mortality at wind turbine sites is that no single regulatory body oversees bird mortality data collection. According to Garry George, “Very few wind projects in the U.S. are monitored. Most don’t have to be monitored; recording bird mortality is only something that’s started in the past few years.” Information gathered to project the total annual mortality rates “is really from a small percentage of projects that are monitored,” George said. Typically, he said, companies pick a subset of 20-30 turbines to analyze at each site. Surveyors conduct surveys within a 100-meter radius at 10-meter intervals around each turbine. The final analysis takes into account scavenger rates (how many bird bodies may have become food for coyotes, ravens, and other scavengers), as well as surveyor efficiency.
Still, collecting a total tally is challenging, considering companies don’t have to disclose their findings. The system for assessing bird mortality “is not very well standardized,” said former surveyor and 2013 Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua lecturer Zach Smith. “There’s definitely room for improvement.”
Nevertheless, Smith and George both put the total number of bird mortalities in perspective, citing loss of habitat as the largest impact to birds. The Smithsonian Biology Institute and USFWS also estimate that cats kill two billion birds per year, while a 2007 National Research Council study estimated an annual 976 million bird deaths from collisions with buildings, and 80 million deaths from cars. “We have to work on every level to reduce mortality and be nicer in nature and more bird friendly,” said George. If the wind industry continues to boom, and if wind energy companies continue to do things as they have done, “That’s not good,” George said.
Until then, while controversial, the BLM decision may pave the way for a more responsible approach to wind turbine impacts to wildlife, allowing the BLM and USFWS greater regulatory control over the development of clean energy projects. “I think we actually did a really good job with the Alta East Project,” said George. Only time will tell if that “take” of a single endangered bird sets the precedent for greater “take” numbers for other endangered and threatened species as the U.S. government continues to push for the continued growth of the renewable energy industry.