Balance of Power
Nor may the core areas be large or inclusive enough. Scientists know that individual sage-grouse travel among populations, but they don’t know how much movement is required to maintain genetic diversity. “If all we’ve done is create a bunch of isolated biological zoos, we’ll have screwed it up,” says Naugle. He endorses the core-area approach but acknowledges that it may have to be modified to include connecting and seasonal habitat not covered by the breeding-area data.
Some 28 million acres of Wyoming sage-grouse habitat lie outside the core areas, and state wildlife officials have recommended a limit of just three well pads or wind turbines per square mile for this less essential habitat. But Freudenthal’s executive order supported incentives for development there, as long as it’s managed to maintain the species. The specifics of those incentives remain open to debate.
The oil and gas industry has been largely supportive of the strategy, in part because it allows some development even in core areas. But the limitation of five percent disturbance per square mile effectively bans wind farms, since facilities with such widely spaced turbines are, in general, not economically feasible. While that still leaves 12 million acres potentially available for wind development, wind-energy companies and groups have been critical of the core-area restrictions.
One wind-industry concern is that many promisingly windy expanses outside the core areas are far from existing transmission lines, which are political poison. “Building a transmission line is a lot harder than building a wind farm,” says Jonathan Naughton of the University of Wyoming Wind Energy Research Center. Seven major transmission-line projects are now at various stages of development in Wyoming, and how the core-area strategy will affect their fate is far from certain.
Nonetheless, Wyoming’s plan is proving popular with its neighbors. Montana and Colorado have already emulated it for their smaller but still significant swaths of sage-grouse habitat, and Doherty is working with other states. (The policy isn’t being used for other species because it requires decades of data on breeding and other factors—information rarely available.) The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a unit of the USDA that partners with landowners to preserve resources on private land, has launched a program to reward property owners for improving habitat within core areas.
“The answer to energy development isn’t ‘No,’ but ‘Where?’ ”says Naugle. “Decision makers have to maintain bird populations, but they also have to meet domestic energy needs. What we’re trying to do, with the core-area idea, is give them a way to strike a balance.”
The tension between wildlife and wind energy won’t stop with sage-grouse. The United States still depends on coal for about half its energy supply, with wind and solar power contributing only two percent—far less than in some European countries, such as Spain, which now generates 17 percent of its energy with wind and sun. Many U.S. states have established standards for renewable-power generation, and utilities are striving to meet them with new wind and solar installations and even hybrid power plants that use renewables to decrease their consumption of fossil fuels. On the flip side, to meet 20 percent of our energy needs with wind power by, say, 2030, the Department of Energy estimates that the United States will need about 12 million acres of wind farms. That translates into 250,000 to 600,000 acres actually occupied with turbines.
Scientists at The Nature Conservancy are conducting a “human footprint analysis” of the lower 48 states. Joseph Kiesecker, the group’s lead scientist, aims to use the findings to guide most wind power and other energy development toward mined lands, agricultural lands, and other places with few benefits for wildlife. Such studies could eventually resolve ongoing controversies over solar development in Mojave Desert tortoise habitat, natural-gas drilling near Northeastern water supplies, and wind turbines proposed for bird and bat flyways across the country. “We have a real opportunity with renewable-energy development because the breadth of the resource is so wide and the amount we exploit is relatively small,” says Kiesecker. “We have a lot of flexibility in where we put it.”
When conservation strategies focus on the most valuable habitats, the bittersweet reality is that while they can protect large chunks of important habitat, they don’t set out to save everything. While this kind of triage is painful for champions of particular spots, its supporters say the large-scale rewards—for both local wildlife and, in the case of renewable energy, the global climate—far outweigh the costs. “We gave up two-thirds of the grouse habitat in state, and we took a lot of heat for that,” says Rutledge. “But we had to give up something to get what we got, and we got more in a year of negotiation than has been gained since 1954, when the birds were first recognized as in trouble. Would I have liked to protect them all? Absolutely. Can I accept what we did? Absolutely. We’re protecting 14 million acres of Wyoming.”
Michelle Nijhuis’s work appears in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009. She writes about science and the environment for High Country News, Smithsonian, and many other publications.