News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

Killing a Condor is Okay at Wind Project, Feds Say in About-Face Move

Month-old condor chick with mom. | Photo: FWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In a reversal that has outraged environmentalists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it will not penalize a Southern California wind operator if its turbines kill or injure one California condor. One of the world's most critically endangered animals with fewer than 250 birds in the wild, the condor's range in the Tehachapi Mountains is being encroached on by intensive wind turbine development.

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FWS biologist Ray Bransfield told ReWire that FWS has completed its Biological Opinion (BiOp) on condors for Google and Citicorp's Alta East project, which would be built and operated by wind developer Terra-Gen. Occupying 2,592 acres, mostly on public lands, near the intersection of state routes 14 and 58 in Kern County, Alta East would generate a maximum of 318 megawatts of electrical power with 106 wind turbines, each with 190-foot-long blades.

FWS's BiOp for Alta East includes an "incidental take statement" that in effect allows one "lethal take" of a California condor. "Incidental take" of a protected species is a term of art covering any kind of injury, harassment or disturbance, or even habitat damage that a project causes inadvertently. "Lethal take" is when the species in question dies. If the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approves the project, FWS would require formal re-review of the project's impact on condors if a single condor is killed over the 30-year operating life of the facility.

According to FWS, other wind developers are welcome to apply for similar permits. "This is the first time we've authorized incidental takes of California condors -- and we're approaching them very cautiously," said FWS Director Dan Ashe in an interview with Louis Sahagun of the Los Angeles Times.

According to FWS press spokesperson Stephanie Weagley, the BiOp was issued approximately a week ago and delivered to the BLM, which is in the process of determining whether to approve Alta East. Standard practice dictates that BiOps for a project are made public when the lead agency -- the BLM, in this case -- issues a Record Of Decision on the project. Attempts by ReWire to obtain an advance copy of the Alta East condor BiOp have so far been unsuccessful.

Condors are especially threatened by the new generation of wind turbines because they fly slowly, their 9-foot wingspans making them somewhat slow to maneuver. They tend to soar while watching the ground, searching for activity of other scavengers. This habit makes them vulnerable to injury from blade tips approaching from above, often at speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour.

Alta East has come under heavy scrutiny for its threat to condors in the east Tehachapis. It's far from the only wind facility that poses such a threat: the area has seen startling growth in wind installations in the last four years, many of those installations every bit as much a threat to California's largest bird. According to Bransfield, the Alta East facility is the first to come up for incidental take consideration because it occupies BLM land. Asked in email whether this pending incidental take permit offered a precedent for neighboring facilities, Bransfield told ReWire:

Our biological opinion (and the incidental take statement included in the biological opinion) are specific to this project. We would need to evaluate any future projects on their own merits; therefore, I do not have an answer to that question. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that numerous wind projects are already in operation in this area; none of them applied for an incidental take permit from the Service; also, none of them are on Federal land, so this is the first to undergo consultation.

Of the 132 free-flying condors in California as of March 2013, nearly half -- 65 birds -- live in the Tehachapis, well within an easy day's flight of the burgeoning wind developments in the vicinity of Alta East. And according to telemetry from the transmitters worn by many of the birds, they're moving right up against the Tehachapi Wind Energy Area -- and in many cases flying across it.

Recent condor GPS locations mapped near wind development areas in the Western Mojave | Map: FWS

The revelation of the pending take permit caught many wildlife protection activists by surprise, and several told ReWire that it was difficult to offer a measured response on behalf of their organizations without access to the text of the BiOp. But the reaction of Center for Biological Diversity attorney Adam Keats quoted in Friday's Times article aptly summarized most of the sentiment ReWire found among activists: "This is a sad day for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Keats told the Times. "We're talking about perhaps one of the most endangered species on the planet, let alone in this country."

"It's premature and inappropriate," said condor expert Sophie Osborn, wildlife program director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council and author of "Condors in Canyon Country: The Return of the California Condor to the Grand Canyon Region." Osborn, who managed the Peregrine Fund's involvement with the Grand Canyon condor reintroduction for many years, told ReWire that the incidental take permit flies in the face of what we know about how to help birds survive wind energy development. "Proper siting means finding out which areas pose less threat to birds. It means not putting turbines in high use areas, not allowing development in places that have heavy wildlife traffic."

"This just seems like a recipe for losing condors," she added.

Osborn also took issue with a statement by Dan Ashe quoted in Louis Sahagun's Los Angeles Times piece, in which the FWS chief said "The good news is that we have an expanding population of condors, which are also expanding their range."

"The reason we have an expanding population is that we're breeding and releasing condors," said Osborn. "That doesn't offer an accurate picture of how they're doing once they're released."

If a condor is killed at Alta East during that 30-year period, the BLM will have to do what's known in the endangered species business as "reinitiating formal consultation" -- essentially restarting the process by which FWS determines whether a project will jeopardize the existence of an endangered species.

That's a reassuring-sounding prospect: FWS will assess whether a project that has killed an endangered animal poses further threat to the species. The process is often less reassuring in practice than it is in theory. Endangered species advocates were hoping for a "jeopardy" finding when solar developer BrightSource started finding hundreds more federally threatened desert tortoises on the site of its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System than were forecast in that project's BiOp. The original BiOp and take permit allowed BrightSource to kill, harm, harass, or disturb no more than 40 tortoises. Once it was clear there were a lot more tortoises than that onsite, BLM estimated as many as 2,862 tortoises (including eggs) could be harmed by the project. Despite the 70-fold increase in potential "takes," FWS merely required a few changes to the project's tortoise relocation plan and issued a revised BiOp that allowed construction to proceed.

Reviewing a project's impact on condors after a single death may seem fairly stringent by comparison to the Ivanpah tortoise example, but compared to a year in prison and a fine of $100,000 -- the existing penalties under the Endangered Species Act for killing a condor -- it's definitely getting off easy. And the number of remaining tortoises in the Ivanpah Valley, as beleaguered as they are, is many times higher than the entire population of California condors worldwide.

This is an abrupt about-face for FWS, whose representatives were stating as recently as last year that issuing lethal take permits for the California condor to wind developers -- or anyone -- was out of the question. In a 2011 letter regarding Alta East sent to Jacqueline Kitchen of the Kern County Planning and Community Development Department -- and included as a public comment in the project's Final Environmental Impact Statement -- FWS's Assistant Field Supervisor Carl Benz said that "we consider avoidance of mortality of California condors to be the only acceptable conservation strategy at this point in time." That was the same point in time in which FWS was rebuking Kern County for downplaying the existence of condors on the site of a different proposed wind project. In a letter to the county's Board of Supervisors, Diane Noda -- Field Supervisor of the FWS Ventura office -- warned the county that careless approval of enXco's 350-megawatt Catalina wind project could land the county in hot water with regard to illegal take of condors, adding "We cannot envision a situation where we would permit the lethal take of California condors."

The decision also marks a change from policy stated recently in the behemoth Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), an overarching Habitat Conservation Plan in the works for the California Desert, being prepared by FWS in cooperation with the California Energy Commission (CEC), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). As recently as this past January, this is what the DRECP's planning documents had to say about the idea that wind developers would be granted permission to "take" condors:

Based on best available information for the California condor, it is anticipated that no lethal take would be authorized for condor, but that the DRECP would promote conservation of the species.

So what prompted this volte-face on FWS's part? It's hard to tell without looking at the Biological Opinion, which has not so far been made publicly accessible. Stephanie Weagley told ReWire that a commitment by Terra-Gen to implement a condor warning system played a role in FWS writing the first-ever incidental take statement for California condors.

"These measures include... a system to detect condors flying in the vicinity of the project [and] curtailment of operation prior to any bird entering the area of the wind turbines," Weagley told ReWire.

What this likely means, given the flaws inherent in standard detection tech such as bird radar, is that Terra-Gen has agreed to use a system that will detect the radio transmitters worn by many condors and slow their turbines when the alarm signals the birds' approach.

Those transmitters are worn by many condors. They are not worn by every condor. A double-digit percentage of condors in California may be without transmitters, and those with them may stop signaling due to equipment failure. "Transmitters often have failed batteries," Sophie Osborn points out. "They fall off. It's a hell of a lot of work to capture condors to attach new transmitters, especially if the condors in question aren't habituated to food subsidies. It can take weeks or months to recapture a condor whose transmitter has failed, or to capture a fledgling that's never had one attached. It takes a big commitment of people on the ground to do the work."

Condors' social behavior may offer some level of "herd immunity" to windmill strikes in that radio-silent condors will often be accompanying those with transmitters. But that's not by any means a certainty. Eventually, Terra-Gen will have to find some other way of detecting condors, and no reliable way other than constant live observation really exists.

FWS's Stephanie Weagley points out that this reality is in part what drove the Alta East BiOp's findings. "Because the detection system is not fool-proof," said Weagley, "the Service's biological opinion on the proposed action anticipates the lethal take of a single condor over the 30 year life of the project."

If condors do move into the area in increasing numbers, that poses another problem with mitigation through detection. Wind turbine operators are in business to sell power. If they're obliged to cut their output drastically every time a condor flies by, and if condors start flying by more than a few days a year, that cuts into profits, and into investors' income, and into the creditworthiness of the operator. The temptation to err on the side of threat to condors will grow with the local condor population.

And that threat may involve a single condor only rarely. Condors are intensely social animals -- one biologist has called them "primates with feathers." The birds tend to gather in huge flocks at a carcass, and they can assemble those huge flocks quickly, as shown in these camera trap images caught just a few moments apart:

Photo: FWS
Photo: FWS

It may turn out to be hard to kill only one California condor by accident.

A more likely broad cause of the FWS reversal on condors is overarching pressure from the Obama administration to develop renewable energy generating capacity at all costs, even going so far as to help conceal the deaths of protected and endangered bird species at wind installations. Dan Ashe, according to the Times, pointed out that the condor issue had been a thorn in the side of wind developers in the Tehachapis:

Fish and Wildlife Director Daniel Ashe said the decision reflects a difficult reality. The threat of prosecution jeopardized the construction of large-scale alternative energy facilities... in the wild and windy places preferred by condors.

Which observation prompted one commenter on social media to point out in exasperated all-caps: "YES THAT IS WHAT IT IS SUPPOSED TO DO."

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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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Given that there have been quite a number of "capture" and "handling" myopathies of condors by members of the Condor Recovery Program, an Lethal Incidental Take limit of 1 condor over 30 years is more than strict.

In captivity among such program partners as the Peregrine Fund's World Birds of Prey Center, San Diego Wild Animal Park, and others, more than 50 condor chicks and juveniles alone that never saw a day of wild release have died since captivity started in the 1980's.

Other records show additional forms of mortality related to how the recovery program handles condors.

Recently in Baja California, a condor chick receiving a West Nile Virus vaccine injection was accidentally killed when the needle went into the heart instead. (Reference Necropsy Report # 162888, dated 5/30/2010. The Prosector was listed as Dr. Ilse Stalis, and the record is maintained by both the USFWS and the Zoological Society of San Diego. Groups with FOIA material also have these and other documents related to capture myopathy.).

If the standard for a program to be re-evaluated, or even shut down, is one bird for lethal take, then perhaps the Condor Recovery Program itself needs a top-to-bottom review.

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Absolutely repulsive. FWS needs to be completely dismantled now that it has just become an unapologetic lobbyist for destructive, overpriced, unreliable, anti-democracy Big Energy. FERC, NREL, EPA, DOD and many other agencies recognize that slaughtering wilderness and wild animals for Big (ahem) "Renewable" Energy profits is not only completely stupid but also completely unnecessary. Time for DOI, DOE and FWS to catch up.

As for the bizarre comment about Condor Recovery deaths, let's just quickly run some numbers here: How many "net" Condors has the Recovery program brought us? roughly +400? How many "net" Condors will Big Wind bring us? -3? -5? -399? A "lethal take" comparison between a program that successfully and continuously increases the population of Condors and one that only brutally kills them is truly weird.

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This is far more lethal than just Terragen being allowed. In the LA Times, it states that the Tejon Ranch "luxury home" developer can also harrass and kill condors. What good is an endangered species act if a developer lines the pockets of politicians who then allows for exceptions? I live in Sand Canyon and have reported the siting of a Calif condor. This is not more than 2 or so miles from planned wind development site. The fact is that either the turbine blades need to be retrofitted with protective shields to prevent birds and bats from being slaughtered or shut off until they are fitted. The Tehachapi Pass is loaded with about 9000 turbines. Folks, you might think they're great but they only produce energy when the wind blows. They're started by natural gas, tons of steel, copper, aluminum, are mined as iron ore. They not a bit green. Herbicides and pesticides are used to keep the bugs and brush down that eventually goes into the water table, the once prime farmland is now wasteland. Lehigh cement plant, a German company, spews so many pollutants into the air, while making the cement for the tons of concrete for pads, that our air constantly has white muck in it that is cancer producing. This is the 21st century , not 10,000 B.C. Can't we do better than this?

When the 100 plus condors are gone, they're gone forever. They're not renewable.

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Hands down this is the best article I have ever seen covering ESA issues! You called bullshit on the whole consultation reinitiation process, thank you! Really after the project has been built there is no amount of condor killed that will get spineless biologist and submissive supervisor of the Ventura Office and the evil folks in the Regional office to tell the windfarm to pull the plug. Yes, they will just issue another take permit to allow more kill. The sad thing is that there is an blade less form of wind energy that could have been required had Ray had a back bone to mandate it-- of coarse it reduces the profit a bit but its still feasible. To the biologist who wrote this BO, when your kids read this you will have to explain to them how you helped put the Condor in it's grave like you did to the tortoise-nice legacy.

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Zack Scrivner is a Kern County Supervisor who lives in Bear Valley Springs, where California condors were sited and documented in the Tehachapi News. Just google it. He has the power to force FWS to pull the plug on Alta East wind. The first commenter thinks approval is for 1 condor kill/30 years. Not true. With the hundreds of sq miles of wind turbines east of the 14 freeway condors will be exterminated. The North Sky River wind operational turbines cover 21.3 sq miles. Another that will rise soon is the notorious "City of Vernon" wind project that is 18000 acres/28.125 sq miles.

Near Silver Queen mine and Camelot Blvd 10-20 dead hawks are pick up every day. Anyone who thinks this is acceptable or "green" is nuts or brainwashed by the media's hype. Those blades spin at 200 mph at the tips.

I've lived near ground zero for over 8 years. We have seen 1 bat, 1 scrub jay and 1 Cooper's hawk this year in rural Tehachapi. I'm disgusted and angry at the stupidity and short-sightedness of so many otherwise decent people.
Money has clouded every shred of common sense and leadership of the Kern Board of Supervisors, dangling jobs as the reason to destroy our shared environment. There are no jobs because companies continue to send American jobs to communist countries and places that use child labor and have no environmental laws. 2.5 million jobs leave every year. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why the U.S. is in shambles and is scraping the bottom of the barrel by opening up more fracking, drilling and mining, causing our poles to melt even faster. They belong in prison for intentionally causing our extinction.

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Sheila's request regarding condor program numbers and incidental take related to windfarms seems to be illustrative more of NIMBY than of reality.


To date the USFWS reports to the public 0 number of condors taken by wind power mills, though some 70-80 condors are "missing in action" throughout the California condor zone and in the "10 (j) release area in Arizona and Utah.


To be honest though, USFWS and the Condor Recovery Program have not been forthcoming to the public with data and documentation on all forms of mortality related to the program


Perhaps if critics of wind power were to submit copies of the necropsy and incidental take reports of the cited raptors (Cooper's hawks, golden eagles, etc) to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, Law Enforcement would have probable cause to halt wind operations under existing law.


One last observation: Within a 2 mile radius of the intersection of the 118 and 405 Freeways in the San Fernando Valley, 5 Cooper's hawks have been active hunting song birds this past spring. In addition, 1 Cooper's hawk was recently seen chasing pigeons over the parking lot behind Rosie's Barbecue south of Nordhoff along Tampa Avenue, in the heart of the very urban San Fernando Valley. Turkey vultures, redtails, and even a golden eagle have been seen all proximate to the Hansen Dam area near Pacoima, California within the past few months. Perhaps the birds you seek have moved to the city, to chase game and more plentiful water that the urban bird landscape seems to afford.

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You all have cameras, and you live in the area.
Take pictures of these birds who have been hacked from the sky by wind turbines. Every one of them.

I mean this is the Obama admin. If they were worrying that their windfarm would kill one Condor, that means their existing windfarms have already killed dozens that we were never told about.
They just shoveled some dirt on the carcass and kept it on the quiet.

How many thousands of eagles have been killed in Altamont without any headlines?

That's the dude's MO.

Someone needs to fight this. The only weapon we have is bad press.

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Send your photos of wind turbine bird kills to Watts Up With That the website http://wattsupwiththat.com/ .

Anthony Watts will get the Condor killers the kind of publicity they do not want. You can change this.

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Ah the humans found even another way to devastate the earth and wipe out species.... If anyone believes in right and wrong, or has ever wondered what may happen to one's soul after passing, at least some of these folks are picking sides early on and will have a long line of kills to account for. Well done, the future generations should be proud of your actions when there's nothing left on this once beautiful planet. Besides the F&WS, one commenter stated quite well, the Kern County Supervisors and specifically the Planning Director will be first in line. Welcome home.

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Unfortunate the last comment from Wyatt was removed, He said it well and supported the condors - the once revived species which were given the ability to be "taken" meaning harassed, killed, or injured by "green" technology. Ironic and pathetic that our engineering ability has only evolved this far.

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"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service"...........The wind industry has been able to conceal most of its turbine mortality for decades with bogus mortality studies.

"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service"...........The wind industry has been able to enjoy meaningless voluntary regulations.
"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service" ...........The wind industry has been allowed to destroy and develop the condor's natural habitat with thousands of deadly turbines.

"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service"...........The condor is now held prisoner by permanent feeding stations.

"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service"...........In California any condor deaths will be blamed on lead poisoning even though the food provided for them is lead free.

"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service"........... There are no longer any free flying condors but just zoo animals enrolled in an outreach program.

"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service"........... Not say a single word is to be said that might tip off the public how deadly wind turbines really are to all bird species.
"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service"............... Bird safe turbine designs have not been discussed as a way to save rapidly declining bird species.
"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service"........... Not one meaningful study on the detrimental impacts of wind turbines will be conducted.

"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service"........... None of the multitude of bogus wind industry studies will be refuted.

"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service"................Any condors killed by turbines,that the public happens to find out about, will be covered with an "incidental take permit".

"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service"................Turbines can be stopped in an effort to save condors from being chopped up, but will continue to spin for all other species.

"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service"................Condors that do wander from their small territories into wind farms, will be trapped because of their "behavioral problems" and condemned to captivity.

"With approval from the Fish and Wildlife
Service".................The public will not be told the truth.

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Daniel Ashe, the director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a public enemy of the people for his decision to allow California condors to be kills by electrical equipment. This idiot, sitting in a key seat has opened the door to every supplier/vendor in the wind industry to openly and legally kill birds that belong to you and me. Ain't going to happen. Before this is over, this man is going to be standing in an unemployment line.

http://grist.org/news/wind-farms-seek-federal-ok-to-kill-eagles-pissing-off-both-left-and-right/

In this article one of the companies is Wind Capital Group. This is a subsidiary of the notorious Barclay's Bank. Yes, folks, the same bank who is guilty of manipulating interest rates (Libor.)