• U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says sage grouse not endangered
  • Decision paves way for wind-farm development in Western U.S.

Billionaire Phil Anschutz’s plans to build a $5 billion wind farm in southeast Wyoming will no longer be stymied by the mating dance of the greater sage grouse.

The U.S. Interior Department’s decision Tuesday not to designate the bird as an endangered species means Anschutz’s Power Company of Wyoming LLC may now proceed with the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm. It also opens the door to oil and natural gas development in the region.

Anschutz is planning the biggest U.S. wind farm with as many as 1,000 turbines that will have 3 gigawatts of capacity, spanning 2,000 acres in a region that’s home to some of the strongest breezes in the country. The area includes 58 leks, breeding grounds for the birds that would have been off limits to developers if they were designated an endangered species.

“We have spent millions of dollars to implement on-the-ground conservation measures for sage grouse,” Kara Choquette, a spokeswoman for Denver-based Power Company of Wyoming, said in an e-mail. “We will spend millions more,” on additional conservation measures and mitigation requirements. Anschutz wasn’t available to comment.

Mating Dance

Sage grouse are known for a mating dance that involves strutting, chest-puffing and some unusual sounds. They live mostly in 11 western states and once numbered in the millions. Males reach four to five pounds (1.8 to 2.2 kilograms) and hens weigh in at two to three pounds, and they depend on sage brush for food, shelter and nesting areas. Their population has declined 90 percent since the 19th century, according to the Interior Department, as their habitat was threatened by power lines, encroaching civilization and invasive trees. 

The scrub-loving birds don’t like to nest or breed near tall structures where predators may perch, including turbine towers, utility poles and oil rigs, and then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in 2010 their decline warranted review under the Endangered Species Act.

The agency’s Fish and Wildlife service determined Tuesday that the birds don’t need to be protected because of an “unprecedented” collaboration between conservationists, scientists, energy developers and other groups to protect grouse habitats.

Population Growing

According to an Aug. 17 report from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the number of males found on leks increased 63 percent from a 2013 low. The group formed a conservation strategy for the sage grouse in 2006 to coordinate efforts to prevent loss of habitat.

Power Company of Wyoming studied the mating and nesting habits of hundreds of sage grouse on Anschutz’s Overland Trail Ranch in Carbon County. Tagged with tiny GPS monitors and tracked over several seasons, the hens showed little movement outside their preferred leks. Five years of analysis confirmed that the company’s selected sites for turbines would have little impact on the birds.

The sage grouse decision will spur energy development in the region, said Amy Grace, wind energy analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in New York.

“It removes a potential impediment over a massive area in 11 states,” she said in an interview. “And it’s not just wind. It affects oil and gas development, housing and roadways.”

Oil and Gas

Oil and gas producers are pleased with the endangerment decision, though Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Denver-based trade group Western Energy Alliance, criticized new rules for drilling on federal lands that came with Tuesday’s announcement.

“When you layer all these restrictions, it makes drilling difficult,” Sgamma said in a phone interview. Still, the grouse determination came as a relief to developers. “It’s a good day for the West.” 

The first portion of the wind farm will have 157 turbines and is planned for a site called Miller Hill, a ridge on Anschutz’s ranch that has some of the best wind resources in the country. About half of the entire project will be on federal land and the rest will be on the ranch. It doesn’t have a buyer lined up or transmission lines to deliver the power.

“Sage grouse face numerous human-induced threats, including the effects of climate change,” John Anderson, senior director for permitting policy and environmental affairs at the Washington-based American Wind Energy Association, said in an e-mail. Using wind power to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases caused by coal and gas plants can actually help the birds. “Wind energy and sage grouse can safely coexist.”

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