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Court To Consider Injunction In Kern County Wind Case

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California condor soars over the Los Padres National Forest. The birds are making a comeback in the wind-turbine-heavy Tehachapi Mountains | Photo: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Plaintiffs who filed suit against Kern County over a proposed wind installation's possible threat to California condors will argue for a preliminary injunction against the project on August 1. The groups, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club, sued in October to reopen environmental review of NextEra's 100-turbine North Sky River wind project, and the smaller adjacent Jawbone project, in the mountains north of Mojave.

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The groups maintain that the combined project as planned poses a serious risk to California condors, now struggling to rebuild their numbers after nearly going extinct in the 1980s. The project may also pose a threat to beleaguered golden eagles, southwestern willow flycatchers, and bats.

"There's plenty of room in the state for both wind projects and the California condor to thrive," Center for Biological Diversity biologist Ileene Anderson said when the suit was filed in October. "But if condors and wind turbines are going to coexist, those turbines need to be sited carefully and measures have to be taken to minimize the risk that condors will be killed. Unfortunately, this project fails to do that."

The North Sky River and Jawbone projects would be directly north of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Pine Tree Wind project, which has drawn fire for the deaths of at least six federally protected golden eagles, and thousands of other birds per year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) calculates that Pine Tree Wind has killed 1,595 birds a year, which at 11.8 fatalities per megawatt of capacity is among the highest rates of wind turbine bird kill in the nation. FWS speculates that without bird protection measures being adopted at the nearby North Sky River and Jawbone projects, their fatality rates may well be similar.

The plaintiffs have claimed they have tried to work with wind developer NextEra to implement project features to minimize the threat to wildlife, but have been rebuffed. The groups, backed up by letters of concern from FWS and the California Department of Fish and Game, asked Kern County to insist on greater environmental protection measures, but Kern's Board of Supervisors approved the project without amendments in September 2011.

There are 200 California condors in the wild, out of a total population of 400 in the captive breeding recovery program that has staved off the birds' extinction. The birds are expanding their current range from a stronghold in Tejon Ranch toward the eastern Tehachapi range, an epicenter of California wind development. The birds' wingspans can reach nearly ten feet and they are relatively slow-maneuvering, making them especially vulnerable to large wind turbine blades. FWS will not issue take permits for the species, meaning that any wind turbine injuring a condor may face criminal charges. According to Forbes Magazine's Todd Woody, FWS warned Kern County and wind developers in 2009 that most of the projects on the drawing board for the area threatened the condor. Wind development in the area has proceeded nonetheless.

The injunction hearing will take place August 1 at the Kern County Superior Court in Bakersfield.

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