Officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are worried that a proposed Crook County wind farm could cause irreversible damage to a nearby sage grouse population.
At a recent Crook County Planning Department public hearing, officials from ODFW advised county officials of the biological risks that wind turbines may have in the proposed area.
While the potential impact of development in the area is still uncertain, officials said they would like to see a three-mile buffer around a sage grouse lek — where the birds strut during mating season.
But the developers of the wind farm said that buffer would destroy their project.
The Crook County Planning Department is scheduled to hold its second public hearing on the West Butte Wind Power Project on Wednesday. Since the project will generate fewer than 105 megawatts of power, the project only requires approval from the county.
“To be absolutely clear, in this process, ODFW serves as a natural resource adviser to the county’s Planning Commission, that’s all,” said Christian Hagen, the sage grouse conservation coordinator with ODFW. “We have no regulatory authority. We are advising them of what the biological risks are with this development.”
The estimated $220 million project would have 34 to 52 wind turbines, standing about 400 to 574 feet tall, that could generate enough electricity to power about 50,000 homes. The developers estimate it would also bring in about $1 million annually for the county in property taxes. The project would sit on a 10,000-acre ranch, but only occupy about 20 acres.
The sage grouse, a bird Hagen described as “one of the iconic species of the West,” is being considered for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Hagen said data from gas and oil exploration studies generally show that developing near sage grouse decreases their mating productivity. But since the West Butte Wind Power Project could be Central Oregon’s first commercial wind farm, Hagen said its effect on sage grouse is unknown.
“To the best of my knowledge, the development in Oregon (of wind farms) has largely occurred in wheat fields,” Hagen said. “So, we’re in a new era of development. … There are a lot of appealing aspects to having wind farms in the desert … but a lot of uncertainty of how species in these native habitats will respond.”
The project’s turbines would be placed at 5,000 to 5,800 feet in elevation on the ridges surrounding West Butte.
John Stahl, the developer of the West Butte Wind Power Project, said he is willing to work with ODFW to mitigate the impact on the sage grouse. But, he added, a three-mile buffer would “wipe out” the project.
“They came out with a blanket statement,” Stahl said of ODFW. “(The agency said,) the sage grouse were going to leave. The lek would be destroyed, and no sage grouse would be left on the property. … They have no knowledge that is going to happen. The lek could remain active. They are basing their scientific studies off oil, gas and coal studies, and that’s a different, noisier type of project. We don’t think that necessarily equates to wind.”
Heidi Bauer, with the Crook County Planning Department, said Wednesday’s meeting could be the final hearing where the Planning Commission takes public testimony. Bauer said she’s uncertain what the next step will be, but the commission could hold additional meetings to deliberate before making a decision.
Lauren Dake, Bend Bulletin – http://www.bendbulletin.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090306/NEWS0107/903060399/1009/NEWS01&nav_category=NEWS01