Bringing wind farms to the West hasn’t been as simple as federal officials might have imagined. Spinning blades are proving deadly to golden and bald eagles, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to temporarily halt construction of wind farms nationally, including West Butte and three others in Oregon, and to review operating farms last fall while crafting an eagle protection plan.
Cattlemen are cautiously watching wind development, supportive so long as energy leaves room for grazing allotments, according to rancher John O’Keeffe, public lands committee chair for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. Hunters and conservationists are looking to preserve populations of mule deer, elk and other wildlife. Of particular concern is the sage grouse, a now imperiled species of bird that dwells on the same flat, open lands also prime for wind farms.
Sage grouse breed in open spaces called leks, and will avoid them, and breeding, if tall objects hover, fearful they conceal predators. With the number of leks shrinking and no way to reproduce them, sage grouse were categorized as “warranted but precluded” by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife in March 2010, meaning the bird’s condition warrants an endangered species listing but there aren’t the resources to make it happen. The listing was a cautionary signal to developers and conservationists. If sufficiently harmed by wind farms, sage grouse could prove the spotted owl of Eastern Oregon and wipe out energy goals for some states altogether, including Oregon.
Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, is among conservation leaders looking critically at wind. While the last two years of planning and talks have led to bald and golden eagle protections, a BLM effort to protect sage grouse regionally, and a mitigation and sage grouse protection policy for Oregon, Sallinger says those are bright spots on an otherwise troubling scene: Oregon still doesn’t have a framework for determining where wind farms can go. And the political pressure to put more renewable energy on federal land — and do it fast — may meanwhile have consequences for wildlife.
“We haven’t seen that federal agencies so far are willing to stand up to wind developers and really ensure that natural resources are protected,” says Sallinger. “Ultimately, I think that’s not only going to be to the detriment of natural resources but to the wind industry itself, because what I see is that the wind industry is losing its green veneer.”
But speaking out is an awkward posture for some conservationists, many of whom championed renewable energy as an answer to climate change. Sallinger says conservation groups first avoided such disputes, glad to make progress on alternative energy goals.
“I think what you’re seeing now is a growing shift from focusing on ‘OK, we need to be doing this’ to ‘we need to be doing it right,’” he says. “I think it’s important to understand that the market that drives renewable energy is not entirely different from the market that drives oil.”