22 November 2011

Wind Turbines and Mitigation at Broken Bow

Mitigation associated with the Broken Bow Wind Project in Custer County Nebraska, is based upon the "total acres of direct and/or indirect impact to grassland birds," according to information received from a biologist with the Nebraska Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"There have been no past payments nor talk of any future or for any other wind project to the Service to offset the take of migratory birds protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act," Robert Harms said in an email response to an inquiry about this project.

"During the course of our meetings with the Broken Bow wind developer, there was a considerable amount of discussion about how to offset impacts to migratory birds that may occur as a result of the degradation and/or loss of nesting habitat. Additionally, there were some grassland/wetland habitats that could also provide suitable habitat for the federally endangered whooping crane and other migratory birds in the Broken Bow Wind Project site as well, albeit a very small amount with no previous records of use by that species.

"As a means of offsetting the loss of grassland and grassland/wetland habitats, the wind developer committed to making a donation to a land trust in Nebraska in the amount that would be equivalent to the total acreage of impact--that amount is $190,000," Harms indicated.

"The $190,000 is not an arbitrary number, but, in this case, it also included grassland" and "wetland habitats as well. The total direct impacts included road access to the turbines and tower and substation footprints, which are proposed to be located in grassland habitat. Total indirect impacts are the total acres within a circle that has a 180 meter radius extending outward from the center of a turbine, when the turbine is proposed to be constructed in grassland habitat. Previous research shows that nesting by grassland birds may be affected within 180 meters of a wind turbine. The direct and indirect acre amounts are added together to get a total impact. For this project the total was 1,762 acres of grassland and grassland/wetland habitat impacted. This total was then multiplied by the value of an acre of grassland if that land were to be placed under a conservation easement. The value of that acre of land is generally calculated through a certified appraisal or comparable sale.

"For this project, an appraisal was done and the amount was roughly $108 per acre. The total amount was $190,000 (108 x 1762).

"The project developer and FWS biologists discussed the option to donate the funds to a land trust for a conservation easement with the wind developer - they seem to prefer this method simply because it's easy and simple - they make a memorandum of agreement with a land trust of their choice, make a donation, and leave it up to the land trust to find an available conservation easement. In this situation, the Nebraska Land Trust is likely to receive the donation, subject to approval by its board of directors."

Funds provided to the Nebraska Land Trust have been allocated to establishing a conservation easement upon a ranch located north of the Calamus Reservoir.

This is an effort initiated by the Sandhills Task Force, with funding from sources, including the Nebraska Environment Trust and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"I view this as a ready-made opportunity, available right now and a good use of the funds from the Broken Bow project - and I still do. Use of the $190,000 donation for this project will more than offset impacts to the loss and/or degradation of grassland habitats for migratory birds as it contains large stands of grassland and wet meadow areas," Harms said, noting that the endangered American Burying Beetle occurs on the ranch, and another conservation easement was recently established on land on an adjacent ranch.

In the spring of 2011, The Nebraska Environment Trust provided $190,000 to The Nature Conservancy to establish an easement on 1,742 acres at the so-called Horseshoe Bend parcel along the Calamus River, upstream of the reservoir area.

"It's always best to do mitigation in the area that is closest to the site of impact. However, I thought the conservation easement in Loup County (25,000 acre ranch) had priority over Custer County where the Broken Bow Wind Project is located, a distance of approximately 50 miles away as the crow flies. The interest was there at the ranch northwest of Calamus Reservoir - federal funds already were available to put the land under easement, and a private match was needed that we could facilitate.

"Conservation easements have the potential to maintain good land stewardship. Five years ago, I may have agreed that an easement on a ranch in the sandhills to protect species and habitats may be a lower priority, but I don't anymore. The price of grain has resulted in the breaking out of a tremendous acreage of native sandhills grasslands for center pivot development. There's also a lot of interest in wind development in the Sandhills as well which has the potential to cause degradation of large blocks of unfragmented habitat."

Local opportunities for conservation activities were available for consideration. The Natural Resources Conservation Service recently purchased a perpetual easement on a playa wetland tract of 160 acres, just a few miles west of the wind turbine project area.

The FWS and NRCS have previously been involved in cost-share agreements.

In northern Custer County, cost-share options could have been used to manage habitat at the Myrtle Hall WMA, managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Funds could have been used for habitat improvement, such as removal of invasive cedar trees.

Concerning any impacts on migratory birds, the project developer, Midwest Wind Energy, did conduct a number of avian surveys at the site, according to Harms. These surveys typically include breeding bird surveys, migration surveys and raptor surveys, he said.

"Surveys will continue for a period of up to 2 years following operation of the wind project, including monitoring of collisions by birds with turbines and the powerlines," Harms noted.

There has been no response from the FWS upon a request to receive this information for evaluation purposes.

Harms agrees "that the public should be made aware of the impacts and mitigation to their public trust fish and wildlife resources that could be potentially impacted by a wind project."

The agency is considering adding information to the regional office website regarding wind power development, Harms said in response to the inquiry.

The Mountain-Prairie region is also involved with a Habitat Conservation Planning effort with several wind companies, with further information available at http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/wind.html, Harms noted.

This HCP, if approved, would allow the incidental take of threatened and endangered species due to wind turbines.

Construction of Phase One of the Broken Bow Wind Project is expected to being soon. There will be 50 wind turbines, spread across about 14,000 acres.

A second phase with an additional 35-40 turbines is also expected to be built, though an environmental evaluation has not yet occurred.