Balance of Power
Green energy isn’t necessarily harmless. But new efforts are under way to site renewable energy projects and transmission lines outside unspoiled landscapes and wildlife habitat.
To feel the power of the Wyoming wind, stand in the shadow of a 20-story-high wind turbine in the midst of the rolling sagebrush west of Laramie. Wind slices across the long, tapered blades and roars toward the southeast, cutting at bare faces and hands. Red-tailed hawks hunch atop utility poles, the snow-covered ground is marked with frozen ripples, and some trees have a noticeable and permanent lean. People, too, are accustomed to the gales: Wyomingites joke that if their famous wind ever stops, everyone in their sparsely populated state will fall over.
This turbine is one of nearly 800 built in Wyoming during the past dozen years, and together they produce a gigawatt of electricity—enough to power up to 325,000 households. Thanks to high electricity prices, the diminishing costs of wind power production, and rising demand for renewable energy in other states, interest in Wyoming’s wind has soared in the past two years, and at least 20 new wind farms are proposed for private and public lands in the state. On ridges and plains, meteorological towers topped with spinning anemometers poke into the sky, signs of wind farms on the way.
The Wyoming wind boom is good news for the global climate. But the production of any power—whether from coal, gas, wind, or sun—inevitably leaves a footprint. In Wyoming the roads, construction activity, networks of pipelines and transmission lines, and noise that accompany energy development are thought to threaten the greater sage-grouse along with the scores of other species that depend on sagebrush habitat. The situation, at first glance, looks like a painful choice between green energy and healthy sagebrush—between, in effect, polar bears and sage-grouse.
But science and smart planning may solve this dilemma. During the past three years a team convened by Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal has devised a plan designed to both protect key sage-grouse habitat and allow energy development. The approach is now spreading to other states, and conservationists hope it will minimize both current and future conflicts between clean power and wildlife. The federal government has agreed to give the strategy a chance: On March 5 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would not immediately list the sage-grouse as an endangered species. In its decision, the agency praised the efforts of Wyoming and other states, noting that while the plan has yet to be fully implemented, “it provides excellent potential for meaningful conservation of sage-grouse.”
The wind farm outside Laramie is located in sage-grouse habitat, though not prime habitat. Here the sagebrush is short and widely spaced rather than the dense, waist-high stands the birds prefer. “There’s habitat, and then there’s habitat,” says Brian Rutledge, Audubon Wyoming’s director and a member of the governor’s sage-grouse team. Protecting both the bird and the climate, he explains, requires a fine-grained knowledge of what rare species need to survive. “This is our chance to do renewables right,” he says. “We can develop renewables in already disturbed landscapes—in hay meadows, wheat fields, old parking lots, old gas fields—and not in the last best habitats we have.”
The sagebrush steppe or, as some call it, the sagebrush sea is one of the grandest landscapes in North America. It covers about 100 million acres, stretching from southern Saskatchewan to southern Utah and southcentral Colorado. Deceptively simple on the surface, the sagebrush steppe is a diverse place, with an array of species adapted to the region’s harsh and varied climates. On a clear winter day, when the sky is bright blue and the snow-muffled silence seems endless, herds of deer and elk move through the sagebrush, at home in their winter habitat. In the spring, the landscape turns a gentle green, and with luck one can hear the pop of strutting male sage-grouse as they flap their wings, fan their feathers, and inflate their chests in hopes of attracting a hen.
The sage-grouse are aptly named, for they spend their entire lives in the sagebrush sea, using its shrubs as both food and refuge. When they congregate in winter—at times in groups as large as 100—the birds survive almost entirely on sage leaves. Sometimes they find shelter from the wind and extreme cold under the snow canopies formed by sagebrush branches. Later in the year they nest under the plant, and hide their newborn chicks in its shadows. Without sagebrush, in short, there are no sage-grouse.
The decline in the bird’s population during the past century—as much as 90 percent in some places—mirrors a decades-long erosion of its habitat, which many still consider a wasteland. In the 1950s and ’60s, when research suggested that sagebrush competed with grass, cattle ranchers eager to feed their herds tore up sagebrush by the acre—a practice that lingers today. Exotic grasses, especially cheatgrass, act as fuel for wildfires, and have increased the frequency of fires in some sagebrush regions as much as 20-fold in recent decades. West Nile virus has also taken a toll on the species. And once-large patches of sagebrush habitat are now heavily fragmented by roads, barbed-wire fences, coal mines, and gas fields.
In the 1990s and early 2000s several conservation groups repeatedly petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the sage-grouse as an endangered species. In 2005 the agency concluded that Endangered Species Act protection was not warranted. But three years later, following revelations that a top Interior Department official, Julie MacDonald, had manipulated the listing process for several species, it had to reconsider its decision.