Balance of Power

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.

By Michelle Nijhuis
Published: May-June 2010

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.

Wyoming leaders feared that by adding an extra layer of permitting to oil and gas development, listing would hamstring the industry, which provides more than half of state revenues. "It would grind our economy to a halt," says Ryan Lance, Governor Freudenthal's deputy chief of staff. At the same time conservationists harbored their own worries that in the resolutely red state of Wyoming, a wide-ranging listing would provoke a backlash against both the sage-grouse and the Endangered Species Act--just as the northern spotted owl had in the Northwest--ultimately frustrating conservation and the restoration of privately owned habitat.

During the previous decade Wyoming and other states had encouraged local efforts to preserve sagebrush steppe habitat, but these projects were small and largely uncoordinated. In order to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing, Freudenthal knew, the state would have to come up with a better way.

 

In 2007 that demanding task fell to the unromantically named Governor's Sage-Grouse Implementation Team, chaired by Bob Budd of Wyoming's Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust. Budd had previously led the development of the state's bighorn sheep conservation plan, which had identified key sheep habitat. He wondered if a similarly focused plan could work for the sage-grouse.

Brian Rutledge of Audubon Wyoming was also looking for a coordinated strategy for saving species. As a seasoned conservationist, Rutledge knows the costs of small, scattered battles. "We needed to figure out a way to do this at a bigger scale," he says. Rutledge consulted David Naugle, a University of Montana wildlife professor who studies the needs of breeding sage-grouse. Naugle and Kevin Doherty, then one of Naugle's Ph.D. students and now a senior ecologist for Audubon Wyoming, began to pinpoint what they called "core areas" for the species' survival. "What we asked first was, 'Where are our biggest, most intact landscapes with the biggest populations?' " Naugle says. "That's the central underpinning of the core-area concept."

Poring over decades of data on sage-grouse breeding collected by state wildlife officials, Doherty analyzed sage-grouse habitat use in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and neighboring states--the species' eastern range. Within that sprawling space, he found, some parts are far more important than others. Setting aside a carefully selected 25 percent of the range, he estimated, would save more than three-quarters of the habitat of the known breeding sage-grouse population; protecting 60 percent would conserve the entire breeding sage-grouse population's habitat.

Audubon Wyoming presented its maps to the Sage-Grouse Implementation Team's state and federal agency officials, oil and gas industry representatives, and ranchers; a wind energy representative joined the group in 2009, after the industry had gained momentum in the state. The state wildlife agency and industry groups had come up with maps of sage-grouse habitat needs roughly similar to Audubon's, and the task force members--somewhat to their surprise--found themselves in broad agreement on the core-area strategy. "The group was able to say, 'Holy cow, it's pretty obvious where the birds are,'" says Budd.

Then they began setting boundaries. Excluding places already overwhelmed with oil and gas development--because even large sage-grouse populations in those areas have little chance of long-term survival--they settled on 14 million acres. The area encompassed a little more than 20 percent of the state but included breeding habitat for 80 percent of Wyoming's sage-grouse population. Taking into consideration research showing that the birds avoid juniper trees and drilling rigs in the winter, and that their cousins the prairie-chickens likely steer clear of wind turbines, the task force recommended that all "surface disturbance" in core areas--gas wells, wind turbines, roads, pipelines, even overhead transmission lines--be limited to a maximum of five percent of each square mile.

In August 2008 Freudenthal directed state agencies to manage core areas in their jurisdiction to protect sage-grouse, and in January 2010 the Bureau of Land Management issued a memo recommending restrictions for core habitat on its lands. Two months later the Fish and Wildlife Service added the bird to the roster of "candidate species" for potential future listing. For the team, the challenge is clear. The agency will revisit its decision each year, and if the bird's numbers decline, the FWS will raise the urgency of listing it as an endangered species. "The agency has said that this bird deserves protection," says Rutledge. "We've said we can provide that. Now's the time to show we can do it."

 

Can this path rescue the sage-grouse and the hundreds of other species that depend on the sagebrush steppe? "It's innovative, and it's probably the West's best bet for saving sage-grouse," says Sophie Osborn, a biologist for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, a longstanding state conservation group. "But there's never a perfect strategy. There are always trade-offs."

The Outdoor Council, among other conservation groups, is concerned that the restrictions are inadequate to prevent sage-grouse population declines. "We really need to have high levels of protection for these areas," says Steve Holmer, senior policy adviser for the American Bird Conservancy, which supports listing the species. Holmer warns that ongoing energy development and grazing on these sites will continue to undermine the sage-grouse population.

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.

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