At Least One Idaho Wind Farm Has Been Scrapped Because Of Sage Grouse

Jul 24, 2014

A southeast Idaho wind farm
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

The New York Times reports more than two dozen energy projects in the West have been scuttled because of sage grouse, at least one of those projects was supposed to be built in Idaho.

The sage grouse represents a much bigger challenge for states like Idaho than its turkey-like stature might suggest. The bird is considered an important part of the high desert ecosystem, but it's sensitive to man-made development and its numbers are declining.

The federal government is considering protecting the sage grouse through the endangered species list. The proposed listing has set off what a New York Times story described as "a mad scramble among the unlikeliest of allies to save the bird and avoid disrupting the nations enormous growth in energy production."

“With a range stretching over more than 165 million resource-rich acres across 11 states [including Idaho], the grouse is at the center of one of the country’s most important struggles: to balance the demand for energy against the needs of nature. And in the process, it has put two environmental priorities — preserving species and fostering renewable energy — on a collision course. ” - The New York Times

States don’t want the sage grouse listed because that would create tight restrictions on land use. So states like Idaho have created their own plans to save the bird. States hope their plans will be strict enough to pass federal muster and keep the bird off the list, but also allow more land use than what the feds would put in place.

“Already, federal officials have delayed, altered or denied permits for more than two dozen energy projects in the West because of the bird…..Paradoxically, the issue has taken the biggest toll on wind, a renewable source of energy considered important in the fight against climate change, which itself threatens the bird’s future.” - The New York Times

At least one of those energy projects scuttled because of sage grouse would have been built in Idaho. The multi-national company RES Americas planned to build one of Idaho’s largest wind farms which would have been known as China Mountain. The $700 million project with 170 turbines would have been in southern Idaho, and the power would have been shipped to Nevada.

“The NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] permit process was suspended while BLM awaits the USFWS [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] decision on listing the sage grouse," a RES spokesman said in an email. "As a result of the suspension, our Joint Development Partner in the project, NV Energy, decided to withdraw. RES Americas carried on with the project for a while after that, but as you know, the sage grouse population is facing a number of challenges. For this reason, we ultimately decided that the best option was not to pursue the project, and to redirect our efforts and capital elsewhere.” 

A Times-News article in 2011 chronicled some of the ups-and-downs of the China Mountain proposal. At that time, it looked likely that the project would be built.

“The company already had a good idea of the challenges it faces. The BLM's analysis of two options incorporates a separate, $16 million sage grouse conservation plan developed by RES.

Paying for both mitigation/restoration work and long-term research, [an RES development manager] said the plan would provide a net benefit for the area's grouse populations. And though the BLM draft analysis says sage grouse habitat would require at least 20 years to fully recover, if not significantly longer, she said RES believes it can create useful habitat in less than 10 years.

The BLM has not committed to any deadline for when a final China Mountain decision will be released. But [the development manager] said her company hopes to receive a finalized analysis by the end of this year and launch construction in 2012.” - Times-News

Find reporter Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam | Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio