Which is more important, an endangered bird or sustainable energy? That has become the question in Wyoming, where a recent ruling by the state's governor has blocked future wind-turbine development in about 20 percent of the state in a move to protect the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).
The controversial move came after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) instructed Wyoming to consider the impact to sage grouse habitat before approving any new oil or gas development, wind turbines or other development in areas where the bird lives.
According to Reuters, Gov. Dave Freudenthal actually made the decision to protect the sage grouse to try to avoid more restrictive rules that would come under an Endangered Species Act listing. "The guidelines laid out by the BLM will definitely be considered (in a listing decision)," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) biologist Pat Deibert told Reuters.
The sage grouse is not protected as an endangered species in the U.S., but the FWS is currently considering whether or not to add it to the Endangered Species Act. The agency's ruling is due by February 26.
Some environmental organizations, which have pushed for the protection of this species for years, praise these new restrictions on development in sage grouse habitat. They argue that wind turbines would not themselves hurt the birds, but that their construction would further fragment the critical habitat the birds need to survive.
The governor's ruling has placed the future of a $600-million wind farm planned by Horizon Wind Energy in doubt. It also blocks future oil and gas development to one well per square mile of grouse habitat. According to a statement by the National Audubon Society, which pushed for the new rules, Wyoming's previous rules permitted "as many as 60 well pads per square mile."
The American Wind Energy Association doesn't see these rules as being the end of wind power in Wyoming. "I don't read the policy to completely ban wind energy in these areas, though the restrictions might make it difficult to have an economically viable wind project," the association's Laurie Jodziewicz told Reuters.
About 23 percent of Wyoming is considered core habitat for the sage grouse, according to Freudenthal's office, and the BLM has jurisdiction over 70 percent of that land. According to Audubon, current sage grouse populations are about 10 to 20 percent of their historic levels.
Image: Greater sage grouse, via Wikipedia