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Feds Approve Condor-Deadly Wind Energy Project

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California condor | Photo: Jesse Varner/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has given the thumbs-up to a Kern County wind project that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) says is likely to kill at least one California condor. The BLM's positive Record Of Decision for Terra-Gen's Alta East Wind Project on 2,592 acres of land near the town of Mojave was released Friday, leaving only the approval of a right-of-way before the project can begin construction.

As we reported here two weeks ago, FWS has estimated that the Alta East project may well kill a California condor at some point within its 30-year operating lifespan. The BLM's Record of Decision on Alta East includes FWS's formal Biological Opinion (BiOp) on the project, and the BiOp makes that assessment official:

The Service anticipates that over the 30-year life of the project, one California condor is likely to be killed as a result of the proposed action as a result of being struck by a turbine blade. If this single bird has an egg or young nestling at the time of its death, this egg or young nestling may also die if the California Condor Recovery Program is unable to recover it.

If and when that expected fatality takes place, Terra-Gen and BLM will need to reconsult with FWS, which will reexamine whether continued operation of the project will pose a threat of extinction for the California condor. The project would immediately be restricted to night-time operation only during the course of that reconsultation. As condors are predominantly day fliers, that restriction would prevent most condor injuries.

The BiOp also covers potential impacts of Alta East on the Threatened desert tortoise -- FWS's allowed take is ten over the life of the project or two in a single year -- and the Endangered Bakersfield cactus, which will lose more than 300 acres of its habitat to construction.

In the BiOp, FWS uses bleak language to describe the overall outlook for condors with or without wind turbines in their habitat. ReWire found one passage especially interesting:

California condor populations in the wild are not self-sustaining because the mortality rate of condors continues to be greater than the growth rate from wild fledged chicks.

That would seem to contradict recent statements of FWS Director Dan Ashe, who was in the Los Angeles Times quoted as saying quite the opposite in his informal announcement of the BiOp earlier this month. "The good news is that we have an expanding population of condors, which are also expanding their range," Ashe said.

The answer to that contradiction is that FWS among other agencies and organizations has been releasing captive raised-condors to keep the population up. That reintroduction program has cost more than $30 million since 1987, or more than $75,000 per condor now alive.

In exchange for what is in effect a permit to kill a condor, Alta East's operator Terra-Gen is agreeing to build a warning system to detect the VHS transmitters some birds now wear, to phase that out within the next few years in favor of a system that will detect condors without transmitters, and to build an observation station that will be staffed during daylight hours by trained biologists who can distinguish condors from other large birds at a distance. If a condor approaches the site, the biologists will be able to order the turbines slowed so that their blade tips are traveling at a speed of around 3 mph.

The BiOp is mum on what happens if the biologists determine that it is "only" a federally protected golden eagle heading for the turbines, though the BLM's mitigation plan for the project does require Alta East to count eagle fatalities.

In its BiOp, FWS points out that Alta East is far from the only wind turbine project in the vicinity that poses a threat to condors, and says that the threat will only get worse.

Collisions with the moving blades of wind turbines are a potential threat as California condors move into areas where wind energy development is expanding. Several proposed and existing wind energy projects overlap with or are in close proximity to the occupied and historical range of the California condor, including but not limited to, the Tehachapi Mountains, the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the Salinas River Valley. Because of their communal feeding strategy, a single feeding event within a facility could kill many individuals. To date, there have been no documented condor collisions with wind turbines. However, several California condors have been documented flying over and near areas where wind energy facilities have been proposed, are operating, or are under construction. We anticipate that, as California condors continue to reoccupy their known prior range and wind energy facilities continue to expand, the risk to California condors from wind facilities will increase.

Unsurprisingly, environmentalists aren't happy with the BLM's decision to approve the project. "This massive recovery effort has cost millions of dollars and been the life's work of many talented people," said Kelly Fuller, American Bird Conservancy's Wind Campaign Coordinator. But why should the privately funded zoos and other conservation groups that raise the majority of the money necessary for this work continue doing so when a condor's life can be thrown away with the stroke of a pen by the federal government?"

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