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Wind power vs sage-grouse conflict

The conflict between wind energy installations and declines of bird populations is not only from direct collision mortality with scattered obstacles like turbines or in the case of sage-grouses with fences, guy-lines, and power lines. The Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) as number three on the United States WatchList (PDF) of birds of highest conservation concern has declined by 93 percent, in large part because of their habitat destruction and visual and auditory disturbances by new energy development in wind, oil and gas.

As a clean, affordable, reliable energy source to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs, wind energy is an important addition. Unfortunately many of the western states with the greatest wind energy potential also house the highest sage-grouse populations on over 155 million acres.

Specifically in Wyoming, Horizon Wind Energy proposed building 154 turbines in prime Sage-Grouse habitat. The birds consume specific sagebrush species because of higher nutritive value or lower toxins. Their unique digestive system is adapted for sagebrush dominating their diets from fall through early spring and essential for survival. They migrate seasonally between wintering and nesting areas and the sagebrush is part of the adult's diet in summer too.

Since 2003, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has recommended creating five mile buffers from wind developments since the Sage-Grouse have been found to abandon their breeding areas called leks any closer to drilling areas or tall structures. They have poor defense against predators who perch on the structures.

Regulators have issued rules about keeping drilling rigs one kilometer or .6 miles away from known leks to minimize impact and the Wyoming wind project is following that guideline. The larger buffer may be necessary because wind turbines are so much taller than drilling rigs.

The Greater Sage-Grouse, once found in 16 states and 3 Canadian provinces in the West, has been extirpated from 5 states and one province and reduced in range in the others. According to the WildEarth Guardians' The Shrinking Sagebrush Sea (PDF) report, over 80 percent of the Greater Sage-Grouse habitat is threatened with only 3 percent protected to any degree by the federal government. The USFWS is deciding whether to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Other factors threatening its habitat are livestock grazing, spreading invasive cheatgrass, hydropower, hunting, increasing roads, power lines, fences and wildfires.

Another study of wind power development on sage-grouse habitat is the Effects of Wind Power Development on Sage-grouse (PDF) by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. It says most existing wind power developments within the range are either in marginal habitat for sage-grouse or their impacts are not easily identified because of other factors like major highway systems. But this is expected to change with the increased number of wind power developments.

Steps taken to maintain and improve Sage-Grouse habitat include grazing management, controlled burns, setting up preserves, and restoring native habitat. Birds may need to be translocated in areas of suitable unoccupied habitats to expand distribution where there are no dispersal corridors. States most affected include parts of Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Colorado.

Watch the video to see the incredibly unique display and sound of the sage-grouse and the affects of oil, gas, wind and solar energy on its habitat.