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.
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Sage grouse captive breeding success doubtful

220px-Centrocercus_urophasianus_-USA_-male-8 Wikipedia

Greater Sage-grouse. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec. 10, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Critics of sage grouse captive breeding doubt it will succeed.”

Note: The American Ornithological Society’s spelling is “Greater Sage-Grouse.”  The Associated Press style when the full name is not used is “sage grouse.”

By Barb Gorges

Over the eons, the greater sage-grouse figured out how to prosper in the sagebrush.

It’s not an easy life. Some years are too wet and the chicks die. Others are too dry with few leaves, buds, flowers or insects and the chicks starve. Some years there are too many hungry coyotes, badgers and ravens.

Every spring the sage grouse go to the meet-up at the lek, the sage grouse version of a bar [To find where to see sage grouse in Wyoming go to https://wgfd.wyo.gov/Habitat/Sage grouse-Management/Sage grouse-Lek-Viewing-Guide]. The males puff out their chests vying for the right to take the most females, then love them and leave them to raise the chicks on their own.

Experienced hens look for the best cover for their nests. They teach the young how to find food and avoid predators. In fall, every sage grouse migrates to winter habitat, 4-18 miles away.

In the past hundred years, obstacles were thrown in the path of sage grouse, including in their Wyoming stronghold where sagebrush habitat can be found across the whole state except in the southeast and northwest corners.

The low-flying birds collide with fences, vehicles, utility lines. The noise from oil and gas operations pushes them away. Sagebrush disappears with development.

Each state is responsible for all wildlife within its borders. But if a species heads for extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service steps in. Since 1985, the sage grouse population declined 30 percent across the West. It looked like the species might be listed as either threatened or endangered, curtailing oil and gas drilling and other development.

Last month I explained how Wyoming conservationists, sportsmen, the oil and gas industry, agricultural interests and state and local government collaborated on a state plan to conserve sage grouse. However, the current federal administration wants all the state plans to be examined to see if sage grouse habitat can be more densely developed.

Wyoming’s collaborators strongly disagree with the attempt. Public comments were solicited by the Bureau of Land Management through the end of November and the Forest Service is taking comments through January 5 [https://www.federalregister.gov. In the search area type: Ask Forest Service to Amend Greater Sage-Grouse Land Use Plan.].

Meanwhile, a Wyoming man is hoping to change the dynamics of the sage grouse issue by increasing their population through captive breeding.

Diemer True, of the True Companies (oil and gas drilling, support, pipelines, and seven ranches), and former president of the Wyoming Senate, bought Karl Baer’s game bird farm in Powell.

True convinced the Wyoming Legislature to pass legislation during the 2017 session to allow him and Baer to apply for a permit allowing them to take up to 250 sage grouse eggs from the wild per year and experiment for five years with captive breeding. The idea is that birds can be released, bring up the numbers and maybe allow higher density of development in protected areas.

But no one has been very successful captive breeding sage grouse. No one has successfully released them to procreate in the wild and, if True is successful, he wants his techniques to be proprietary—he won’t share them. He wants to profit from wildlife rather than take the more typical route of supporting academic research.

Gov. Matt Mead signed the captive breeding legislation into law this fall. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission wrote very specific regulations about it, which you can read at https://wgfd.wyo.gov/Regulations/Regulation-PDFs/REGULATIONS_CH60.

Five permits are allowed, for a total withdrawal of 1,250 eggs per year, but it is doubtful that anyone besides True and Baer will qualify. Consensus among wildlife biologists I spoke to is that True will have trouble finding 250 wild eggs for his permit.

The facility requirements mean True is building new pens separated from the bird farm’s other operations. Despite these best management practices, there’s still a chance captive-bred birds could infect wild birds when they are released.

[The Wyoming Game and Fish Department monitors sage grouse leks every spring to see how successful the previous year’s breeding was. Numbers naturally vary widely year to year. The effects of captive breeding on these surveys will be included when setting hunting limits.]

No one who knows sage grouse well believes they can be bred in captivity successfully. Young sage grouse learn about survival from their mothers. By contrast, the non-native pheasant captive-bred here is acknowledged to be a “put-and-take” hunting target. It hardly ever survives to breed on its own.

We can only hope that this sage grouse experiment will go well. If captive-bred chicks don’t thrive in the wild, there will be some well-fed coyotes, badgers and ravens.

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.

Eagles and wind energy

2016-8Golden Eagle courtesy Audubon Rockies

Golden Eagle. Courtesy Audubon Rockies.

Published Aug. 14, 2016, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Pondering how much eagles can take”

 

By Barb Gorges

Just when we thought eagles were safe (bald eagles were taken off the threatened and endangered species list in 2007) we discover that golden eagle numbers are still down.  And there are plans to build a massive wind farm in Wyoming which will take the lives of both bald and golden eagles.

I should have written a column about this earlier so you could send your comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but I was sidetracked by spring migration.

However, staff at Audubon Rockies, and their counterparts at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Wilderness Society, have written extensive comments backed by science and experience.

The Power Company of Wyoming (PCW) is developing the 1,000-turbine Chokecherry/Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project. It is located on 500 square miles in Carbon County, southcentral Wyoming, where there is some of the best wind in the country. It will be the largest onshore wind farm in the U.S.

PCW is working with the Fish and Wildlife Service on improving siting for turbines and has reduced the projected take to 10-14 golden eagles and 1-2 bald eagles per year. The definition of “take” is death incidental to industry activities.

The projected take numbers also account for the eagles that will live because PCW will retrofit 1,500-3,000 power poles per year for eagle safety. Eagles’ large wingspans can cause their electrocution when they perch on poles and they touch two electrical hotspots at the same time and cause a completed circuit.

PCW is applying for an eagle take permit for the first half of the development. It is voluntary, but good insurance. PCW saw a competitor without a permit get hit with a $1 million fine for killing eagles.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of updating the eagle take rule. It will probably apply to the second half of PCW’s development, the other 500 turbines.

The update would give wind power companies across the country 30-year permits, to cover the expected lifespan of a windfarm, rather than the current five years. However, Fish and Wildlife proposes a review every five years.

Audubon Rockies concedes that PCW needs some assurance that they can operate for a longer length of time that will make the investment worthwhile—they can’t get investors if there is a possibility eagle deaths will shut down part of the development after the first five years.

However, there are concerns. In the proposed rule update, any monitoring done by the company would be considered proprietary and not be required to be available to public scrutiny. Audubon feels more transparency is needed on what is happening with our eagles.

And there needs to be more flexibility to manage the windfarm/eagle interactions as more eagle research is done. We don’t know yet how eagles will deal with the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre development. It’s not just the spinning windmill blades, the tips of which can travel 150 mph. Eagles also collide with the transmission lines and towers.

Because it takes eagles five years to reach sexual maturity, we know their populations can’t quickly bounce back like rabbits.

The site of PCW’s Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind project is gorgeous. The thought of developing it is heartbreaking. But the company has done a lot of work and spent a lot of money studying the wildlife problems. They deserve clear answers from the federal government on what they can and can’t do.

Eagles are just one of the items addressed in the draft environmental impact statement for the wind farm. Other wildlife, including bats and songbirds, are affected too.

By the end of the year, we will find out how Fish and Wildlife will react to public comments not only on Chokecherry/Sierra Madre, but also the proposed update of the eagle take rule.

Does clean energy have to come down to this? Do we have to fill Wyoming’s open spaces (they are not empty spaces) with industrial clutter? Why didn’t the coal companies spend millions on cleaner power plant emissions research instead of on litigation at every turn?

Why does alternative energy, specifically wind and solar, have to follow the old centralized, mega-production model? I still think disbursed [“distributed” is the frequently used term] power production would be better, safer—less of a target for troublemakers.

In comparison, look at how Mother Nature spreads oxygen-producing plants everywhere. Even where natural or man-made catastrophes have stripped the vegetation, it doesn’t take long for another little oxygen-producing factory to take hold.

Plus, wouldn’t you like to park in the shade of a solar panel while shopping at the mall? Adding solar panels to our rooftops and choosing energy efficient appliances will not only cut our personal utility bills, but in a way, save eagles in the future.

Note:

See http://powercompanyofwyoming.com/ for more information about this wind energy project.

Here are the Bureau of Land Management documents: http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/info/NEPA/documents/rfo/Chokecherry.html. The project is located in the “checkerboard” area, where  1-mile square areas of public land managed by BLM alternate with those owned privately.

Check the Audubon Rockies website for updates: http://rockies.audubon.org/.

Condors in Wyoming?

California Condor

California Condor with identification tags. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 16, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Are condors coming closer to home?”

2014 Update: Condors continue to recover, except for the problem of ingesting lead shot. No records of condors in Wyoming are mentioned in Faulkner’s “Birds of Wyoming,” c. 2010.

By Barb Gorges

If seeing is believing, can you believe what someone else is seeing?

In January someone reported seeing a California condor in the Alcova area. The news was reported second hand on the Wyobirds e-list with a follow up of another second hand report about a second person’s observation.

As I usually do when confronted with obscure or unusual species, I always check the latilong records in “Wyoming Birds,” by Jane and Robert Dorn.

No condors are listed in the Dorns’ second edition, or in the 2004 edition of the “Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Amphibians and Reptiles in Wyoming” available from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The Wyobirds posting refers to two Wyoming records, and although I’ve sent an inquiry about them to the author of the posting, I have yet to receive a reply. When I asked Jane, she thought one of the records referred to was one so very old that it was impossible to establish the credibility of the witness.

Greg Johnson, a local wildlife biologist with a good network of professional contacts, remembered hearing about a condor seen at Flaming Gorge awhile back.

The California condor is an endangered species. Ten thousand years ago it ranged across the southern United States, but by the time of European settlement it was found only in a coastal strip from British Columbia to Nuevo Leon, Mexico.

By the 1930s it was confined to central California. The last wild condor was trapped in 1987 and joined 26 others in a captive breeding and reintroduction program in California.

Some of the condor’s survival problems still exist: collisions with power lines, shootings, lead poisoning from feeding on carcasses of animals that have been killed with lead shot as well as the killing of young condors by eagles and coyotes.

However, a reintroduction effort in northern Arizona begun in 1996 has been very successful. Condors released there are courting, nest building and in the last two years have fledged three young birds.

Apparently, one of the Arizona birds, Condor 19, took a two-week trip north in August of 1998, following the Green River. In the Peregrine Fund’s archives of field notes, researcher Shawn Farry reports being contacted by Loren Casterline, an adult who was with Varsity Scout Troop 1834 at Kingfisher Island in Flaming Gorge Reservoir Aug. 6. The site is in Utah, five miles south of the Wyoming line.

While the scouts swam, the condor left a perch 100 meters away and landed within several meters of Mr. Casterline (condors are known to be curious about humans), but then his movement caused her to take off over the lake. A Fish and Wildlife Service news release mentions “Flaming Gorge, Wyoming,” so perhaps there was another observation.

Condor 19 returned to the Arizona release site seven days later, making a total round trip of at least 600 miles.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service agent in Casper, Dominic Domenici, contacted Arizona about the new reports and learned that the whereabouts of two immature condors was unknown.

Condors are fitted with two radio transmitters–one on each wing–but ordinary radio telemetry used for locating wildlife doesn’t work for a species capable of ranging as far as the condor. As funding becomes available, one of the transmitters is replaced by a solar-powered, satellite-based one that reports Global Positioning System fixes, or locations.

Locations are transmitted every hour through the day and then the data is e-mailed every evening to researchers, conveniently plotted on a topographic map. Apparently, the missing condors are not wearing the improved technology. How likely is it a condor has visited the middle of our state? Unlikely, say the Arizona researchers, but not impossible.

The second observer is said to have been able to make a direct comparison with a nearby eagle, but depth of field can play tricks. None of the other Casper birders combing the area saw any condors.

Turkey vultures have a wingspan of 5 1/2 f feet, eagles, 6 1/2, while the condors are at 9 1/2 feet. Though condors have a red-skinned head devoid of feathers like the vulture, their bodies are, at 46 inches long, 20 inches longer than the vulture’s.

Adult condors have a black and white color pattern under their wings that is the reverse of the silver and black pattern for vultures. Immature golden and bald eagles have white underwing markings, but an immature condor has none.

The way to make a rare bird report more creditable is to have more people see the bird and to photograph it. At this point, the sightings remain unconfirmed. If a formal report were to be submitted to the Wyoming Bird Records Committee and accepted, what would it mean? It would mean a condor has scouted the neighborhood. Whether or not it leads to return trips and breeding records for a future edition of the Atlas, only the condors can tell.

BOX

Wyobirds archive of postings, http://www.home.ease.Lsoft.com/archives/wyobirds

Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Amphibians and Reptiles in Wyoming, http://www.gf.state.wy.us, see nongame heading on the right side of the page. A CD of the Atlas can be requested by calling the Lander office, 800-654-7862.

Peregrine Fund, http://www.peregrinefund.org, see conservation projects

Arizona Department of Game and Fish, http://www.gf.state.az.us, see condor reintroduction

Ventana Wilderness Society, http://www.ventanaws.org, California reintroduction and condor natural history information