By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Despite his love of green power, a Wyoming biologist who tracks golden eagle deaths is calling on Carbon and Albany counties to curb wind power expansion.
“In my opinion, existing wind projects are already causing a chronic decline in the population of resident eagles,” Mike Lockhart, a biologist with 33 years of experience, told the Cowboy State Daily last week.
Lockhart’s comments referred to his years-long eagle tracking project, which attributed several golden eagle deaths to wind turbine strikes.
Lockhart said so many new wind projects are underway that the golden eagle population will continue to decline.
“The scale of proposed wind projects will greatly increase and accelerate these (turbine) impacts to a point where current population levels will be impossible to sustain,” he said.
Bald eagles, Lockhart said during a presentation to the Carbon County Commission earlier this month, seem to be more accepting of changes in their landscape than stubborn golden eagles.
He added that the windy lands near Interstate 80 in Carbon and Albany counties, particularly the Shirley and Laramie Basins, are prime habitat for golden eagles — perhaps the finest in the world. country.
For northern golden eagles that swing from Canada to Mexico through the seasons, the region is a prime corridor; and for Wyoming’s homebody, or “resident” eagles, the area is key habitat.
Lockhart has captured 176 eagles for temporary study since 2014, fitting 113 of them with satellite tags for further tracking. Of the 113 labeled, 80 were on or adjacent to areas of existing and proposed wind projects, and were tracked for specific wind impact studies. The group includes breeders and “floaters”, or singles looking for good breeding habitat.
A dismal facet of raptor study, Lockhart noted in his presentation to the commissioners, is that wind power development tends to outpace life cycle studies, leaving biologists to catch up. to discover the effects of wind turbines already built or proposed on the eagles live their long life according to the seasons.
Of the 113 eagles tagged, Lockhart recorded 20 golden eagle deaths with known causes: 17 were killed by human activities and three died from natural causes, such as disease or conflict with other eagles.
Here’s how the 17 golden eagles killed by human activity died:
One per collision with a wire;
One, by lead poisoning, in particular by ingesting bullet fragments;
Two were shot down;
Four died in collisions with vehicles;
Four died from collisions with wind turbines and
Five were electrocuted – including one killed by a power line designed with insulation developed to protect raptors.
Some bald eagles were also tagged, but fewer of their deaths were related to human activity.
Lockhart’s concerns were twofold: that wind expansion in the Shirley Basin area, in particular, should be halted for further study and mitigation and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should go public with its conversations with developers. wind turbines.
“They’re not transparent enough,” Lockhart said, “and they need to be much more rigorous in terms of what’s happening on the ground and actually monitoring that and not asking third parties to do that.”
Lockhart said there are excellent biologists working for and with the Fish and Wildlife Service, but he fears they are being “crushed” by a current federal climate of green energy frenzy.
“I’m a proponent of green power myself,” Lockhart said, adding that the Fish and Wildlife Service should focus more on protecting endangered species than promoting wind power interests.
Rigorous study of the habitat
Almost all of the Shirley Basin wind projects are owned by Rocky Mountain Power.
Rocky Mountain Power did not respond until noon Friday to a voicemail requesting comment.
Kara Choquette, director of communications for Power Company of Wyoming, hit back at Lockhart in an interview last week with Cowboy State Daily.
Choquette said his company’s wind farm, the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, underwent a lengthy process of habitat review by the US Fish and Wildlife Service before the wind structures could be built.
Unlike the Rocky Mountain Power projects, the Chokecherry is not in the Shirley Basin but is farther south than the area Lockhart is most concerned about, Choquette said, adding that the process of establishing turbine routes around the eagles was nevertheless rigorous.
Six years of “numerous biologists” studying the habitats, she said, preceded construction, and the studies are still ongoing even as the turbines turn.
“That’s a pretty high level of conservation before you can get an eagle bycatch permit,” she said.
“Bycatch” is the number of eagles a wind project is allowed to kill or disturb, incidentally, under Fish and Wildlife Service protocols.
The Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2016 that the Chokecherry Farm may be allowed to “take” one to two bald eagles and 10 to 14 golden eagles per year.
Choquette said that because “take” is also defined as “disturb”, the actual number of golden eagle deaths is likely below that threshold of 10 to 14.
Chokecherry planners were also required to place insulators on utility poles and establish other environmental measures which she said could provide a “net benefit” to the eagles, leading to an overall increase in the population.