The California Condor Versus Renewable Energy—Whose Side Are You On?

A wind operator gets permission to injure or kill one of the state’s most endangered birds.

Condors
Conservationists have been working for decades to preserve condor populations. (Photo: Mmphotos/Getty Images)
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It’s a tough issue: Expand renewable energy, or protect, without exception, the endangered California condor. 

Since its near extinction in the early 1980s, the iconic bird has begun repopulating California, while wind energy development has also exploded. It would seem that the two could coexist peacefully.

But this May, in a decision that outraged several environmental groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, partnering with the Bureau of Land Management, announced that it won’t penalize a California wind operator if its turbines kill or injure an endangered California condor.

The operator is a company called Terra-Gen, and its project is called Alta East Development. According to the website Rewire, the turbines sit on mostly public lands near the intersection of state routes 14 and 59 in Kern County.

When operational, Alta East will generate a maximum of 318 megawatts of electrical power with 106 wind turbines, each with 190-foot-long blades. What’s created so much controversy is that in granting Terra-Gen a permit to go forward with the project, the USFWS has also, in effect, allowed for the legal, lethal “take” of one endangered condor in a 30-year period.

According to Rewire, “incidental take” of a protected species is a “term of art” covering any kind of injury, harassment or disturbance to the species, while “lethal take” means the species in question dies. In the FWS’s “biological opinion” for the Alta East project, FWS included an incidental take statement that allowed for one lethal take of a California condor.

According to the FWS spokesperson Stephanie Weagley, the “incidental take” rule in this case is a protection both for the Condor and for Terra-Gen, which is in the process of creating a wind turbine system that could potentially further protect all condors from dying or becoming injured by turbine blades.

In an interview on Monday, Weagley told TakePart that the decision is a “good step forward in the protection of condors” because it will allow Terra-Gen to test a new condor detection system within wind farms over the next 30 years.

The company, according to Weagley, has created a system to both track transmitter-fitted birds and to detect birds without transmitters flying near wind turbines.

If a bird is detected by Terra-Gen’s system, the turbines will begin slowing, thereby reducing the risk of injury. To date, no condor has ever been killed or injured by a turbine, says Weagley. “But this system will reduce the chances even more,” she says.  

What’s more, says Weagley, should a condor die in an Alta East wind turbine, the BLM would immediately step in and reevaluate the project. The only thing that won’t happen, under the new provision, is that should the company’s turbines kill a condor, the company will be protected from prosecution by the federal government.

So what’s the big deal if one condor, in a 30-year period, is sacrificed for the good of all condors? According to the American Bird Conservancy, that’s not the issue. The issue, say they and organizations like the California chapter of the Audubon Society, is that by allowing a legal lethal take, the federal government is setting a new precedent for the killing of endangered species, and diminishing the work of numerous conservation groups who’ve helped bring the bird back from the brink of extinction in the past three decades.

In a statement on ABC’s website, wind campaign coordinator Kelly Fuller wrote: “The massive recovery effort [for California condors] has cost millions of dollars and been the life’s work of many talented people. But why should the privately funded zoos and other conservation groups that raise the majority of the money necessary for this work continue doing so when a condor’s life can be thrown away with the stroke of a pen by the federal government?”

Fuller then added that, “The Department of the Interior signaled today that it is willing to sacrifice the money and hard work that are spent on private conservation efforts to recover endangered species in order to build wind farms.”

Which side are you taking? Let us know in the Comments.

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