Sage grouse core areas compromise private leasesWritten by Jennifer Womack
First and foremost for some Wyoming landowners is whether or not development will be allowed on leases they’ve negotiated, or are in the process of negotiating. One area in particular, Carbon County, is abundant with sage grouse, wind resources and developers who see an opportunity to tap into the transmission lines slated to pass through the area over the next decade.
“Wind resources development is one piece of a very large puzzle the staff at the Rawlins Field Office is currently working on,” says Rawlins Field Office Manager Patrick Madigan pointing to a map on his conference room wall. The map Madigan refers to shows existing development, potential development areas, and sites where testing and monitoring leases have been issued but no development has occurred. Madigan says 49 meteorological towers have been permitted in the management area that, if developed, could total nearly a half million acres.
Asked how much overlap there is between sage grouse core areas and proposed developments Madigan says, “Quite a bit.” He adds, “The sage grouse issue isn’t over. There’s still discussion on where we’re at with that. As someone put it, that was only week one when they said you can’t have wind farms in sage grouse core areas.”
Again looking to the map on the wall, Madigan points to an area south of Rawlins where the Anschutz owned Power Company of Wyoming is planning a 1,000-turbine project on land the company owns within the checkerboard. It’s one of three projects for which Madigan’s staff is amidst writing Environmental Assessments or Environmental Impact Statements. “About three quarters of their wind farm is in the sage grouse core area and they’re moving forward,” says Madigan referencing Power Company of Wyoming. According to the company’s website they plan to have the development operational by 2013. “They haven’t pulled back and the company is still looking at how this can be mitigated.”
Rawlins rancher John Espy, who has signed a lease with a wind developer, says he’s carried out resource projects with the sage grouse in mind. “It seems like the ranchers who have preserved the sage grouse, are now going to pay the price,” says Espy. He doesn’t want to see the sage grouse listed and is mindful of the impacts of such an action, but says he and other ranchers who’ve worked to protect the grouse, shouldn’t have to “foot the bill” for all of Wyoming.
Horizon Wind Energy announced late July that they were postponing submission of their 500-megawatt Simpson Ridge Project to the Industrial Siting Council. The project was to be built largely on private ranchland owned by Burt and Kaylynn Palm between Hanna and Medicine Bow. The proposed project does include some state land.
Horizon project manager Nate Sandvig says his company will focus its attention on other projects while the sage grouse discussion in Wyoming further unfolds. Horizon’s efforts will move outside of Wyoming as Sandvig describes their work to date in southeast Wyoming as an “island,” lacking the transmission capacity to take it to market.
Sandvig says Horizon has invested large sums of money carrying out the wildlife, cultural and transmission studies that are needed prior to development. “It’s on hold until we get further clarity on the future, especially in regards to sage grouse,” says Sandvig of the Simpson Ridge project. Horizon was planning to launch construction in 2010 or 2011.
Governor Dave Freudenthal, on Aug. 1, 2008, signed an executive order that is bringing into question all development within sage grouse core areas. The order calls for incentives and efforts to protect the grouse and its habitat, especially in those areas defined as “core” habitat.
Bob Budd, a member of the state’s sage grouse working group and executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund, says the core areas were developed using Game and Fish data dating back to the 1960s, and in some cases, earlier. Collection of the data intensified in the 1990s. Over the year he says they’ve looked at the birds in terms of male attendance on leks and their historical presence. Western Wyoming mapping also includes the birds’ winter range.
That data was further refined to account for those areas where development has occurred, explains Budd of what became designation of habitat in a variety of colors. Red indicates the core areas while shades of orange, yellow and then tan account for areas where development has occurred.
Budd says upon creation they knew the mapping wasn’t perfect, but adds, “We believed this was the best opportunity for success in the state.” Mapping funded by the Wyoming Legislature over the course of Summer 2008 verified the accuracy of the core areas, he says, and it has also received review from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). “It’s safe to say we’re in the mid-90s percent ‘right-range,’” says Budd.
Wind development became the focus of the sage grouse core areas early July when the Wyoming Game and Fish Department asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for direction on wind development within those areas. Spring 2008 the FWS recognized the core areas as a “sound framework for a policy by which to conserve greater sage-grouse in Wyoming.” FWS mid-July determined that wind development within the core areas could compromise their agreement with the state. The result, for the time being, is a prohibition on developments within the core areas unless they can prove no harm.
“The Governor’s order was concerning and we knew it was an issue,” says Sandvig when asked about the project that continued to move forward between the August 2008 announcement and the more recent FWS letter. “As we understood the order, there was going to be a higher hurdle to clear in that area, that you could proceed cautiously.” He says they’d compensated for the grouse through practices such as a buffer around leks.
Sandvig says Horizon collared 65 sage grouse and was working with the Wyoming Game and Fish to learn about the birds and minimize their project’s impact. Discussions, he says, took a sharp turn early July. While the Simpson Ridge Project is on hold, Sandvig says, “We’re trying to seek clarity from the Department of Interior on the official policy. Right now all we’ve seen is a letter from Brian Kelly at the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
A decision on the petition to list the sage-grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act is expected as early as February 2010. Sandvig says he understands the state’s desire to ensure the bird isn’t listed, an outcome that would prove devastating for the wind industry and numerous others. The burden, however, may be falling too heavily on wind, he says. “We’re just the last ones to the party,” says Sandvig.
In his neighborhood, south of Rawlins, Espy says, “That country is being developed. No matter what it is — oil and gas, wind or houses, it’s being developed.” Espy says additional studies are needed to determine the impact of wind energy development on sage grouse populations. Given the large number of grouse within a quarter mile of the anemometers testing wind speeds on his ranch, he questions the impact wind development will have. Sage-grouse are typically believed by biologists to avoid high structures that may serve as roosts to aviary predators.
If grouse and wind energy development aren’t compatible and the state chooses to set areas aside, Espy says ranchers within the core areas should be compensated for their losses. “The Governor’s plan doesn’t allow companies to come in and do mitigation,” says Espy of another option he believes should be placed on the table.
Wyoming’s opportunity to sway development locations resides with the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council. The seven-member council, operated as part of the Department of Environmental Quality, “reviews the socio-economic and environmental impacts of industrial facilities before issuing a permit for construction.” The threshold at which a project must go before the Council is $178 million, but there’s been some talk of lowering that limit.
Sandvig says he’d like to see Wyoming reconsider the sage-grouse core area map and involve the wind industry in the discussions. Science is needed on the impacts of wind energy development on grouse and Horizon is putting forth Simpson Ridge as an opportunity to meet that goal. “With wind energy, there’s zero science out there on the impacts to grouse,” says Sandvig.
“The real loser is the landowner,” says Sandvig. “They’re one of the few small ranches left in Wyoming. I’m fairly certain ranching is in decline in Wyoming and this is something that provides them some economic benefits so they can continue living on their ranch.”
“Everybody on that team was very aware and respectful of private property rights,” says Budd. “There’s nothing regulatory or otherwise that says people on private property can’t do what they want, but if we keep pushing, you may be able to be the person singled out as getting the bird listed. If that happens everybody is affected. If you’re a school district, your revenues just went down. If you’re a merchant, you’re affected. If will affect every business in this state.”
Budd says that every time the sage grouse core areas are reviewed they uphold the test as a sound conservation strategy. “FWS says it’s sound conservation of the species and that’s a pretty major statement,” says Budd.
“The interest of the state as a whole is what constantly has to be measured,” says Budd. “There are cases where a person’s gain may be affected in this process, but the other alternative is the entire state being affected negatively. We’re trying to look at the interests of the state as a whole.”