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Another Wind Project May Threaten Condors

Condors 7 and 98 play at the Grand Canyon | Photo: Dug Greenberg/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Bureau of Land Management has just released the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for an Arizona wind project near the mouth of the Grand Canyon. It may pose a threat to the canyon's population of reintroduced California condors.

BP Wind Energy's proposed Mohave County Wind Farm project would occupy almost 60 square miles of open desert about 20 miles from Hoover Dam. Its 283 wind turbines would generate up to 500 megawatts of electrical power.

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The Arizona population of California condors was started by a reintroduction of the birds to the Vermilion Cliffs area in 1996. Classified under the Endangered Species Act as a "Non-essential Experimental Population" (NEP), Arizona's condors do not enjoy nearly the same level of protection as their relatives in California's "non-experimental" population do. Federal agencies engaging in projects that might harm a non-essential experimental population are still required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Unless the project at issue is in a National Park or a National Wildlife Refuge, though, that consultation is only advisory. FWS won't block the project even if it will cause harm to the population at issue.

(Not that, as we have seen recently, FWS would necessarily block projects that harm populations that are fully protected.)

According to the project's final EIS, the geographic limits of the Grand Canyon condor population as determined by FWS overlap the project's proposed footprint. Condor can fly up to 160 miles a day in searching for food, and the Grand Canyon "experimental" population is well within that range of the Mohave County Wind Farm. In the words of the EIS:

The reintroduced population is approximately 100 miles from the Project Area and has been expanding its foraging range to the north and northeast of its release site near Grand Canyon National Park and has not utilized areas to the south since about 2000. This may represent a natural pattern related to the scarcity of carrion from livestock and from large game species like deer and elk.

That's not, in fact, quite true. The Arizona release site for condors is in the House Rock Road area northeast of Grand Canyon National Park, and condors have actually significantly expanded their range to the south and southwest of the release site, with very frequent sightings considerably to the southwest of the release site since 2005.

That's still a ways from the project location near the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. However, it's likely that grazing activities on site could, despite the language in the EIS, constitute a significant hazard to condors in the vicinity of the wind project. A ranching allotment that overlaps with the project site is allowed more than 200 head of cattle, and cattle in the harsh Arizona section of the Mojave Desert drop dead with some regularity. One lost calf dead beneath the turbines that attracts a few turkey vultures could well prove all that's necessary for a handful of condors to beeline 20 miles to the project site.

The EIS will be open for public review until June 15. BLM expects to approve the project by mid-summer.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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