Birder tilts at windmills

Speaking on behalf of birds at Roundhouse windfarm industrial siting hearing was intense experience

The 120 turbines of the Roundhouse wind farm will spread between I-80 and the Colorado border (indicated here as the Larimer and Weld county lines) and from Highway 218 to I-25 (red line on the east side).
The wind farm includes the Belvoir Ranch owned by the City of Cheyenne (yellow), Wyoming State Land (dark blue–each square is 1 square mile) and private land (light blue). The Big Hole, located on the Belvoir south of the railroad tracks, is under The Nature Conservancy conservation easement and will have no turbines.

Published July 5, 2019 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle as a guest editorial, “Participating at the Roundhouse hearing was an intense adventure”

By Barb Gorges

            The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society agrees clean energy is needed. However, wind energy is deadly for birds when they are struck by turbine blades.

            Beginning last December, CHPAS discussed its concerns about the Roundhouse Wind Energy development with company, city and county officials. The 120-turbine wind farm will extend from Interstate 80 south to the Colorado state line and from I-25 west to Harriman Road.

            The Wyoming Industrial Siting Council hearing for the approval of the Roundhouse Wind Energy application was held June 13 in a quasi-legal format.
          Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society filed as a party, preparing a pre-hearing statement. The other parties were the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Industrial Siting Division, Roundhouse, and Laramie County, also acting on behalf of the city of Cheyenne.
            We all presented our opening statements. Then the Roundhouse lawyer presented her expert witnesses, asking them leading questions. Then I, acting in the same capacity for CHPAS as the lawyer for Roundhouse, cross-examined her witnesses. One was a viewshed analysis expert from Los Angeles, the other a biologist from Western EcoSystems Technology, the Cheyenne consulting firm that does contract biological studies for wind energy companies across the country.
            Then CHPAS presented our expert witness, Daly Edmunds, Audubon Rockies’ policy and outreach director. Wind farm issues are a big part of her work. She is also a wildlife biologist with a master’s degree from the University of Wyoming.
            We were rushed getting our testimony in before the 5 p.m. cutoff for the first day because I was not available the next day. I asked permission to allow Mark Gorges to read our closing statement the next day, after the applicant had a chance to rebut all the conditions we asked for.
            The seven council members chose not to debate our conditions. Some conditions were echoed by DEQ. But it was a hard sell since Wyoming Game and Fish Department had already signed off on the application.
            Here are the conditions we asked for:
1) Some of the recommended wildlife studies will be one and a half years away from completion when turbine-building starts in September. Complete the studies first to make better turbine placement decisions.
2) Do viewshed analysis from the south and share it with adjacent Colorado open space and natural area agencies.
3) Get a “take permit” to avoid expensive trouble with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if dead eagles are found.
4) Use the Aircraft Detection Lighting System so tower lights, which can confuse night-migrating birds, will be turned on as little as possible. This was on DEQ’s list as well.
5) Use weather radar to predict the best times to shut down turbines during bird migration.
6) Be transparent about the plans for and results of avian monitoring after the turbines start.
7) Relocate six of the southernmost turbine locations because of their impact on wildlife and the integrity of adjacent areas set aside for their conservation value.
            The second half of the hearing dealt with county/city requests for economic impact funds from the state. The expected costs are from a couple hundred workers temporarily descending on Cheyenne requiring health and emergency services.
            At the June CHPAS board meeting, members approved staying involved in the Roundhouse issue. The Roundhouse folks have a little mitigation money we could direct toward a study to benefit birds at this and other wind farms. There is a Technical Advisory Committee we need to keep track of. And we need to lobby to give Game and Fish’s recommendations more legal standing so they can’t be ignored.
            It’s too bad I don’t watch courtroom dramas. The hearing would have been easier to navigate. But everyone—DEQ employees, the Roundhouse team, council members, hearing examiner, court reporter—was very supportive of CHPAS’s participation. They rarely see the public as a party at these hearings. I just wish we could have had one or more conditions accepted on behalf of the birds.

Barb Gorges is the most recent past president of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society which represents Audubon members in Laramie, Goshen and Platte counties.      

Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society took a tour of the Belvoir Ranch fall 2008. This photo looks northwest from the rim of the Big Hole. Photo by Barb Gorges.
On the southernmost edge of the Belvoir Ranch sits the rim of the Big Hole. This is the view to the south, into Colorado’s Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space. Concentrated nocturnal songbird migration through this area can be seen with weather radar (see a previous post about BirdCast). It is not known if the 499-foot-tall Roundhouse wind turbines will be visible from below. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Year of the Bird celebrates Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Painted Bunting.

This Painted Bunting was Jack Rogers’ Audubon Photography Awards entry in 2015. Photo courtesy National Audubon Society.

Year of the Bird celebrates 100th anniversary of Migratory Bird Treaty Act

By Barb Gorges

This is the Year of the Bird. It’s been declared by four august organizations: the National Audubon Society, the National Geographic Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and BirdLife International. A hundred other organizations have joined them.

My husband Mark and I have been members for years of the first three, and I’m on the email list for the fourth so I’ve heard the message four times since the first of the year.

The Year of the Bird celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that protects birds. Read the act at https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php (remember “take” is a euphemism for “kill”).

The Year of the Bird is also about advocating for birds. Today you can go to the National Geographic website, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/year-of-the-bird/, and sign the Year of the Bird pledge. You’ll receive monthly instructions for simple actions you can take on behalf of birds. The official Year of the Bird website, www.birdyourworld.org, will take you to the National Geographic page, and the other sponsors’ websites will get you there as well.

You may not be aware of National Geographic’s bird credentials. When the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America came out in the 1980s, it was a must-have sensation. You can find the latest edition at local bookstores and online.

The National Audubon Society, http://www.audubon.org/yearofthebird, is your portal to these articles so far: How Birds Bind Us, The History and Evolution of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, The United States of Birding and Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report. My favorite–Why Do Birds Matter? – quotes dozens of well-known authors and ornithologists.

BirdLife International, http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/flyway, offers ways to think about birds. When you see your next robin, think about where it’s been, what it’s flown over. Think about the people in other countries who may have seen the bird too. Think about the work being done to protect its migratory flyways.

On the other hand, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology begins the year addressing bird appreciation. At one of their websites, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/6-resolutions-to-help-you-birdyourworld-in-2018/, Hugh Powell recommends getting a decent pair of affordable binoculars after reading this guide on how to shop for them, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/six-steps-to-choosing-a-pair-of-binoculars-youll-love/.

Powell also recommends CLO’s free Merlin Bird ID app to get to know your local birds better (or see http://www.AllAboutBirds.org). Then you can keep daily bird lists through CLO’s free eBird program, including photos and sound recordings.

While you watch birds from your kitchen window, drink bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee. There’s an in-depth article at https://www.allaboutbirds.org.

Or play CLO’s new Bird Song Hero game to help you learn how to match what you hear with the visual spectrograph, https://academy.allaboutbirds.org.

Finally, Powell suggests “pay it forward”—take someone birding and join a bird club or Audubon chapter (locally, I’d recommend my chapter, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/).

Here in Wyoming our lone U.S. Representative, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, has attempted to take the teeth out of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with H.R. 4239. She thinks protecting birds should not come at the expense of business.

Earlier threats to birds caused conservationist Aldo Leopold to write in his 1949 book, A Sand County Almanack, “We face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasqueflower is a right as inalienable as free speech.”

I would say that people who appreciate birds are not a minority. And many of us agree with biologist and biodiversity definer Thomas Lovejoy, “If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world.”

If it is too cold for you to appreciate the birds while outside, check out National Geographic’s January issue with photos by Joel Sartore. More of his bird photos for National Geographic’s Photo Ark project, studio portraits of the world’s animals, will be in a book coming out this spring written by Noah Strycker, “Birds of the Photo Ark.” Strycker will be speaking in Cheyenne May 14.

Now go to www.BirdYourWorld.org and take the pledge and find out each month what simple action you can take on behalf of birds.

Addendum: Because the paragraph about Liz Cheney was omitted from the column when it was published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, I submitted a letter to the editor that was published four days later:

Migratory Bird Treaty Act under attack

Dear Editor,

2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The U.S., along with co-signers Mexico, Canada, Japan and Russia, agree to protect birds that cross our borders and theirs.

A hundred years ago there was a battle between conservationists and industrialists and the birds won. Industry is now held accountable for “incidental take” – birds killed unintentionally during the course of business. That has included birds hooked by long-line ocean fishing, birds attracted to oily evaporation ponds in oil and gas fields and birds hit by wind turbines.

These kinds of hazards can add up and make a population-threatening dent. Instead, the MBTA has forced industries to pay fines or come up with ingenious solutions that save a lot of birds.

However, Wyoming’s Congresswoman Liz Cheney is backing U.S. House Resolution 4239 which would remove the requirement to take responsibility for incidental take. Here we are, 100 years later, fighting the battle again.

If you would like to speak up for the birds, please call Cheney’s office, 202-225-2311. The polite person who answers the phone only wants to know your name, address and your opinion, so they know which column to check, anti-bird, or pro-bird and the MBTA.

Barb Gorges

Cheyenne

Sage-grouse need your comments by Nov. 27

 

Greater-Sage-Grouse_DaveShowalter_340x300

Greater Sage-Grouse, photo by Dave Showalter.

 

Published Nov. 12, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “Wyoming’s Greater Sage-Grouse conservation plan is in jeopardy”

The deadline is Nov. 27, 2017, for sending your comments to BLM regarding whether you think amending the Wyoming Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan is necessary. See instructions at the end of this column.

By Barb Gorges

Wyoming successfully addressed the sage-grouse issue through a collaboration of state and local government, sportsmen, conservationists, the oil and gas industry, and agricultural interests.

Over six years, the state was able to draw up a plan to establish protected core areas of habitat. Good habitat is the best protection for this species, which has declined 30 percent across the west since 1985.

The plan leaves a large majority of Wyoming open to oil and gas and other development.

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said state plans across the west were good enough that it wouldn’t start proceedings to list the sage-grouse as threatened or endangered.

Here in Wyoming, the Sage-Grouse Implementation Team, headed by Bob Budd, is working hard. The team represents all the previous collaborators.

However, the new federal administration is intent on dismantling anything that happened under the previous president. It tasked new U.S. Department of Interior secretary Ryan Zinke with reviewing all state sage-grouse plans to either toss them or amend them.

None of the collaborators on Wyoming’s plan are happy with this—including the oil and gas people who desire certainty for their business plans. Wyoming Governor Matt Mead is not happy either.

I went to the Bureau of Land Management’s public meeting Nov. 6 in Cheyenne to find out more about the proposed amendments to Wyoming’s plan.

I heard these criticisms:

–Switching to using sage-grouse population numbers to determine an oil and gas producer’s ability to drill and plan for mitigation (more sage-grouse, more leniency) would leave companies with a lot of unwanted uncertainty. Sage-grouse numbers vary enormously from year to year due to weather and other natural effects.

–Basing conservation plans on sage-grouse population numbers rather than habitat would discount the 350-plus other species that depend on the sagebrush ecosystem, including 22 “species of conservation concern.”

–Messing around with the plan could cause U.S. Fish and Wildlife to decide the sage-grouse warrants listing after all. That would close much more land to oil and gas drilling, as well as coal mining and other mineral extraction.

–The current Republican administration thinks states should have more say in issues like this, and the six years of collaboration Wyoming went through is a perfect example of how it can happen. Ironically, it’s the Republicans in Washington who now decree they know what is best for us.

–Wyoming’s conservation plan has been in effect for only two years—not enough time to gauge success. Instituting major changes now would cost a lot of taxpayer money that could be better spent in the field.

BLM invites us to comment during their scoping process. They want to know if we think they should amend the management plans that were developed by the states to protect sage-grouse.

They don’t make it easy, says my husband, a retired BLM wildlife biologist.

Go to http://bit.ly/GRSGplanning (case-sensitive). Click on “Documents and Reports.” This will give you a list of documents. Only “GRSG Notice of Intent” is available for commenting. “GRSG” is ornithological shorthand using initial letters of the parts of the bird’s common name.

After you read the document, click on “Comment on Document.” You’ll have to fill in the title of the document you are commenting on: “GRSG Notice of Intent.” And then you have 60 minutes to finish the procedure or everything you’ve written disappears. You may want to compose your comments elsewhere and then paste them in.

The deadline for comments is either Nov. 27 or Nov. 30—there’s a discrepancy in BLM’s handouts from the public meeting. Go with the earlier date if you can.

To educate yourself before commenting, you can visit the Wyoming State BLM office in Cheyenne, 5353 Yellowstone Road, or contact Erica Husse, 307-775-6318, ehusse@blm.gov, or Emmet Pruss, 307-775-6266, epruss@blm.gov.

But if you are most interested in what is best for sage-grouse, it may be easier to jump to the analysis provided by conservation groups like the National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org/sage-grouse. The former Audubon Wyoming executive director Brian Rutledge was instrumental in the Wyoming collaboration and is still involved as NAS’s director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative.

Two other interested groups are Wyoming Wildlife Federation, http://wyomingwildlife.org/, and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/.

All three organizations offer simple digital form letters that can be personalized, and they will send them to BLM. However, BLM says it gives more credence to comments sent via their own online form.

I hope you can take a few minutes to put in a good word for the bird that maybe should be our state mascot.

Next month I’ll look at what the Wyoming State Legislature did last session that may also negatively affect sage-grouse.