The messy mix of energy and sage grouse
by Jonathan Thompson
A sage grouse lek is a clearing in the sagebrush where the males of the chickenesque species get together, puff up their chests and sputter nonsensical sounds in hopes of attracting females. It's not unlike a singles' bar, in other words. Biologists use leks -- their number as well as the number of birds that frequent them -- to map sage grouse core areas, or zones of significant habitat worth protecting.
Today, much of Wyoming is wondering what will happen if hundreds of 400-foot-tall wind turbines are built near these leks. Will they kill the mood of the frisky birds? Or will they go largely unnoticed?
Wind farms have been denounced as "Condor Cuisinarts" and "bird blenders," because the rotor blades on older turbines -- particularly at Altamont Pass in California -- have killed thousands of birds per year, including hundreds of eagles and other raptors. Scientists now agree that Altamont is an anomaly, the result of badly placed, badly designed, quick-turning turbines. Newer wind farms like Foote Creek in Wyoming might kill hundreds of birds per year. Far fewer birds are killed directly by turbines than by collisions with buildings and power lines, not to mention domestic cats.
In any event, the blades aren't a problem for sage grouse, since they don't fly high enough. What worries Sophie Osborn, a biologist with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, is that the combination of human activity and the introduction of tall structures in the sagebrush sea will slowly drive the birds away. Sage grouse instinctively avoid vertical structures -- whether trees or drilling rigs -- because they provide perches from which raptors can espy a possible dinner of sage grouse fricassee. Not only that, but a bird-brain could mistake the shadows of a turning turbine for a great, big, hungry, flying predator. That might create enough avian neurosis to dampen the libido in the leks and hamper breeding, even if the birds do stick around.
So far, though, wind farms are a rarity in sage grouse areas, so their impacts remain uncertain, says Dale Strickland, senior ecologist with West Inc., an environmental consultancy firm in Cheyenne. At a Nebraska wind farm, prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse numbers have held steady for a number of years, indicating that those species may not be impacted as much as some scientists fear, and adding to the uncertainty over impacts to sage grouse. But that study, though instructive, is not conclusive, leaving questions. "Possibilities will range from the birds being scared to death," Strickland says, "to the turbines being so large that the sage grouse don't even notice them."
Osborn doesn't want to take any chances. She believes that oil and gas development -- which has been shown to reduce sage grouse populations by as much as 80 percent -- has proven that wind farms should be kept out of core areas. Like gas fields, wind farms are crisscrossed by roads, and their construction can be a noisy affair. Worse, they have taller structures, and they cover big areas. According to a Nature Conservancy study published in August 2009, wind power takes about four times as much land to produce the same amount of electricity as natural gas, a phenomenon known as renewable energy sprawl. "Most people think it will probably be worse with wind," she says. "That's the real fear."
Or maybe not, says Strickland. Gas fields tend to be much noisier -- a single rig puts out 50 percent more decibels than a turbine. Trucks might visit a gas well as often as once a day, even after the drilling phase, for water pumping and maintenance, while turbines can go months without maintenance. A gas well permanently disrupts two to five times more land than a turbine. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that coalbed methane holding ponds are prime breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus, yet another major threat to sage grouse.
Indeed, the list of grouse killers is long, and growing. Grouse can fly into livestock watering tanks, get stuck in them and drown. Wyoming game and fish officials recently found that just one five-mile-stretch of barbed-wire fence had killed dozens of grouse. And who knows what effect climate change might have? While everyone agrees that wind farms will impact the bird, questions linger about how to respond in terms of regulations. Brian Rutledge of Audubon Wyoming advocates keeping the "open air factories for wind energy" out of the sage grouse equation, as does Osborn. Others aren't so sure.
"Something caused the decline of sage grouse, unrelated to wind," Strickland says. "If you want to conserve them, you have to figure out what those things are that caused the decline and deal with them. You can't preserve sage grouse simply by eliminating development of wind in core areas."