SARATOGA, Wyo. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun seeking ideas from the public as it considers ways to minimize and offset the number of eagles killed by what could become the largest wind farm in the country.
The federal agency has been working with the developer of the 1,000-turbine Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind project for three years to make sure the turbines are placed away from areas frequented by eagles. They've been mapping nesting areas and flight corridors on the vast project area south of Rawlins in south-central Wyoming.
About 50 people gathered at a public scoping hearing on the project Tuesday held by the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service in Sarasota.
The Power Company of Wyoming LLC, a wholly owned affiliate of Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz's The Anschutz Corp., plans to build the wind farm in two phases over four to five years. It would generate enough electricity to power up to 1 million homes.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has opened a 60-day period for public comment while the agency considers issuing an eagle take permit for the wind farm's 500-turbine first phase. The permit could be valid for between five and 30 years.
Fish and Wildlife has yet to issue an eagle take permit for a wind farm. Agency officials expect to begin doing so as a way to help monitor, minimize and offset eagles.
Dave Carlson, project lead for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency expects the Power Company of Wyoming to submit a permit application in January. Fish and Wildlife would decide whether to issue a permit in early 2015.
A BLM environmental impact statement released last year estimates the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind farm could kill between 46 and 64 eagles each year. Fish and Wildlife will develop its own estimate of eagle mortality while it considers the eagle take permit, Carlson said.
BLM officials said they don't intend to allow turbine construction to begin until Fish and Wildlife has issued the permit.
The Power Company of Wyoming plans to offset the number of eagles killed by the spinning blades by reducing deaths elsewhere. One example is retrofitting older power poles that risk electrocuting perching and nesting eagles to make them safer for the birds.
"We'd like to reach no net loss. So any eagles killed would be offset in some other way," Carlson said ahead the hearing.
The placement of the turbines could also still be adjusted.
"It's fairly refined at this point but it's not final by any stretch, either," BLM project manager Heather Schultz said at the hearing.
Other measures to reduce eagle deaths could include shutting down turbines seasonally or temporarily according to eagle activity, said Kevin Kritz, an eagle specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"We don't know how to design a turbine that avoids killing birds," he said.
The Power Company of Wyoming would hire an independent contractor to monitor eagle deaths and report back to the company and Fish and Wildlife, he said.
Golden and bald eagles are both abundant at the wind farm site in the northern foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Bald eagles can be spotted plucking trout from the nearby North Platte River. Their numbers have rebounded from around 400 a half-century ago to around 10,000 by the time they were removed from federal endangered species protection in 2007.
Golden eagles, which have wings spanning more than 6 feet and are North America's largest bird of prey, can take down adult deer but typically prey on smaller land animals.