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Feds Evaluating Another Wind Project in Condor Country

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Soaring condor | Photo: H. Michael Arrighi/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Bureau of Land Management has released a draft of the environmental assessment for a proposed wind energy facility that would occupy 1,100 acres near Rosamond in the western Mojave Desert's Antelope Valley, at the eastern edge of the California condor's expanding range. But according to the document, the project's 40 wind turbines pose no threat to the Endangered birds.

The Tylerhorse Wind Project, which enXco wants to build in the southern foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains in Kern County, would generate a maximum of 60 megawatts of electrical power. Other species that may be affected by the project include golden eagles and burrowing owls.

Despite the project's close proximity to the expanding condor territory south of Tehachapi, the BLM's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the project states that Tylerhorse's 40 wind turbines can be built and operated without harm to the critically imperiled scavenging birds -- even as it admits that "the ability of condors to avoid wind turbines is unknown."

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Tylerhorse location (red) overlain on FWS map of California condor GPS locations (purple dots) | Map: KCET from USFWS image

The DEIS's release on Friday kicks off a 90-day public comment period on the document. Feedback obtained by BLM during the public comment period will presumably go into crafting the project's final Environmental Impact Statement. The BLM says it will be scheduling public hearings.

According to the DEIS, though condors are frequent visitors to the general vicinity of the project, it's unlikely that condors will be put in danger by enXco's wind turbines as -- in the BLM's words -- "the site lacks available nesting sites, traditional and temporary roost sites for overnight and diurnal roosting locations, and terrain that creates sufficient thermal air currents than [sic] that of the adjacent Tejon Ranch and designated critical habitat." One condor was tracked by USFWS in 2010 at a location less than four miles from the project site.

Just to make sure the site stays as unattractive to condors as possible, the BLM proposes monitoring grazing on and near the project to make sure livestock carcasses aren't left laying around, as well as instituting a speed limit to reduce roadkill. And the DEIS does describe a few ways in which the project could injure any condors that defy BLM expectations and visit the project:

If condors were to occur onsite, direct impacts from operation and maintenance could include disturbance from human activity, collision with WTGs [wind turbine generators], and collision with or electrocution from transmission lines. Other potential direct impacts would be similar to those discussed above for construction and include the loss or disruption of foraging habitat from vegetation removal or grading, the introduction of hazardous microtrash and exposure to toxic ethylene glycol antifreeze that condors may ingest during operation and maintenance activities.

Rescued from the brink of extinction in the late 1980s when the total world population of 22 birds was captured for a breeding program, California condors have increased in number -- but only somewhat, and at significant and ongoing public expense. Fewer than 450 California condors exist in the world, about half of them in the wild in California, the Grand Canyon region, and Baja. Half of California's 160 or so wild condors live in the Tehachapi Mountains area, most within a few hours' leisurely soaring of the wind energy development area in and near the Antelope Valley.

Condors are expected to be especially vulnerable to large wind turbines, whose blade tips can travel at deceptively high speeds. The large birds are slow to maneuver, and generally soar while scanning the landscape below for carrion or potential landing sites. That leaves them vulnerable to impacts from turbine blades approaching from above.

Last year, USFWS attracted vehement criticism from environmental groups when it issued an incidental take statement for the California condor to the operators of the Alta East wind facility. That take statement would allow Alta East one accidental condor mortality during the project's 30-year lifespan.

Alta East is more or less at the corner of routes 14 and 58, three miles northwest of the town of Mojave. That's significantly farther away from the bulk of condor territory than Tylerhorse would be, according to the telemetry map above. We'll be watching to see whether USFWS' input on the condor impacts of the Tylerhorse project takes that into account.

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