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Does Controversial Decision Pit California Condors against Wind Turbines?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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california condorTalk about a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. The U.S. needs to generate more renewable energy if we hope to stave off the effects of climate change. At the same time, critically endangered California condors (Gymnogyps californianus)—which today number 417 birds after the last 22 members of their species were put in a captive breeding program in 1987—need more room to fly and breed as well as more chances to not die. Are these two goals at odds with each other? Many conservationists, who treasure the massive vultures with three-meter wingspans, say yes. The government last week said no.

Here’s the situation: The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last week approved a 153-megawatt wind farm, the Alta East Wind Project, in southern California relatively close to where the condors have regained some of their historic habitat. (The birds have also been released in parts of Utah and Arizona.) The project’s parent company, Terra–Gen Power, worked with the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to see how the 1,049-hectare wind farm—most of which will be built on federal land—would be compatible with the big birds. Terra–Gen halved the number of planned turbines and agreed to install what has been called a “comprehensive condor detection and avoidance” system that would slow down and then turn off the turbines if condors came too close. The company also agreed to contribute $100,000 a year to the Condor Recovery Program, and it will also fund a program to help abate lead in the area. (We’ll get back to the lead issue in a bit.)

So with those promises and technologies in place, the FWS made a decision: the Alta East Wind Project has been granted a license to “take”—yes, that means kill—a single California condor over the course of the wind farm’s projected 30-year life span. This doesn’t mean they will kill a condor, only that they have permission if a fatality occurs. Killing an endangered species usually results in fines ($200,000 for corporations) or even jail time for individuals, neither of which the company would face if a condor dies as a result of the wind farm.

This is not a blank check. If a condor is killed by the turbines, the company will need to further adapt its operations and turn the turbines off during the day when the condors are most active. It will also be required to take further, undisclosed “additional measures to ensure that the project does not pose any threats to condors,” according to a BLM press release. Although no dollar values have been assigned to those actions, they would no doubt significantly cut down on the wind farm’s generating capacity and its profits.

FWS biologists say the likelihood of a condor being killed by the wind farm is low, as the location is outside of the birds’ historic range. The area, in the Tehachapi Mountains 160 kilometers north of Los Angeles, also lacks the thermal updrafts the massive birds use to fly. Meanwhile, each condor that has been released back into the wild carries a radio transmitter that the wind farm’s avoidance system will reportedly be able to detect from up to 25 kilometers away, theoretically providing enough time to turn the turbines off if the birds get too close.

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) had one of the most critical responses to the BLM–FWS decision, pointing out that numerous private organizations have contributed a lot of time and money to help save the condor from extinction. “This [California condor] recovery effort has cost millions of dollars and been the life’s work of many talented people,” Kelly Fuller, ABC’s Wind Campaign coordinator, said in a press release. “The Department of Interior [under which both the BLM and FWS fall] has 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. ABC is extremely concerned about the negative effects that this decision could have not only on the condor recovery program, but also on other recovery programs that rely on public–private partnerships, such as for whooping cranes.”

Lisa Belenky, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), told Politico that she worries that condor populations are still too small (currently 240 birds in the wild, with the rest in captivity) to risk even a single death. She also worried about setting a precedent. “There could be two; there could be five. I mean, where is the number that would be too many?”

Outside of wind power the more pressing threat to condors remains lead, to which they are particularly susceptible. Condors, as scavengers, eat carcasses or gut piles left behind by hunters, often ingesting lead-bullet fragments as they dine. California banned the use of most lead ammunition in condor habitats back in 2007 but it remains legal in other parts of California as well as in Utah and Arizona. Four of the eight wild condors that died in Arizona and Utah in 2012 died from lead poisoning, according to a recent report from The Peregrine Fund. At least one condor has already died this year from lead toxicosis; seven other deaths in 2013 were from as-yet-unknown causes. The CBD has an active “Get the Lead Out” campaign trying to ban more lead ammo in the condors’ range. The CBD and the National Rifle Association, which opposes the ban, argued their sides of the case in federal court last week.

No matter which side of the wind farm debate you fall on, the truth about this case is that it illustrates how even sustainable energies have some impact somewhere. Energy scientists often say “there is no free lunch.” Wind turbines sometimes kill birds and solar projects can displace endangered species such as tortoises. Of course, that pales in comparison with fossil fuels, which can drastically affect wildlife in the areas around production and distribution, along with the climate on a global scale. With California predicted to be the next oil-boom state, maybe wind poses the lesser threat to the condors and other wildlife in the region.

Photo by Thomas Cantwell. Used under Creative Commons license

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. 3:58 pm 05/31/2013

    The extremist environmental groups are demanding a ban on hunting with lead ammunition throughout the state and they continue to justify their demand by claiming that scavenging animals, such as the California condor, ingest and are poisoned by pieces of metallic lead bullets present in gut piles of harvested game left in the field by hunters. They rely on certain scientific papers that allegedly support these claims, and often use the poisoning of the California condor to justify their anti-lead ammunition agenda.

    But there are serious scientific questions about the validity of their claims. The failure of the hastily-enacted California lead ammunition ban legislation of 2007 (AB821) suggests that these groups are wrong. AB821 banned the use of lead ammunition in the “condor zone” region of California. It was strong-armed through the legislature, bypassing the usual path involving the more scientifically inclined California Department of Fish & Wildlife Commission, based on the promise that the ban would lower the condors’ elevated blood-lead levels, and solve the lead poisoning problem. But AB821 has not resulted in lower blood-lead levels or otherwise reduced lead poisoning in condors. Despite the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s acknowledgment that 99% of hunters are complying with the lead ban in the “condor zone” since the law took effect, condors’ blood-lead levels, poisoning and mortality have increased since 2007!

    There are obviously other sources of lead in the environment. These alternative sources are likely an industrial lead compound (e.g leaded gasoline, paint or pesticides), which is far more soluble and bioavailable to condors. We have identified some of those potential alternative sources, and we encourage you to join the hunt for the truth with us and learn the real facts!

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  2. 2. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:31 pm 05/31/2013

    I knew these usually trotted out “truths” (not) would turn up as soon as I posted this article. If only animals stayed within perfectly drawn territories and never drifted from one zone to another. Then the pro-lead claims would hold water. Alas, they don’t. For a great debunking of these ridiculous claims, read “Will Lead Bullets Finally Kill Off the California Condor?” at Yale e360 (where “Hunt for Truth’s” exact comment is also posted and is quickly deflated):

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  3. 3. vdinets 8:07 am 06/1/2013

    But wild-born condors don’t have radio transmitters, do they?

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  4. 4. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:21 am 06/1/2013

    Each free-flying bird is GPS tracked, at least in California. All of the birds are really closely monitored. We know where the eggs are and when they’re likely to hatch, and then the young birds are quickly monitored as well. From a recent SA article: “From his office in Ventura, Calif., Jesse Grantham, coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s condor recovery program, can track each free-flying California condor to within a few feet of its location. He and his colleagues have fitted every 17-pound-plus bird with a radio trans­mitter and a solar-powered GPS device that sends more than 1,000 daily locator points per bird a day.” —

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  5. 5. vdinets 8:44 am 06/1/2013

    So they climb to all nests and put transmitters on all chicks? Wow. I guess they also have to re-capture all birds with failed transmitters (or maybe they use more reliable transmitters? the ones we use on whooping cranes fail frequently, but we operate on a much smaller budget.)

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  6. 6. jplatt 9:02 am 06/1/2013

    Yeah. They also actually go as far as switching out eggs between wild and captive populations.

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