May 19, 2012

Silence of the Lambs

Feds Authorize Killing of Bighorn Sheep in Path of Wind Project

Endangered Bighorn on boundary of
Pattern's Ocotillo Express wind facility
By Miriam Raftery
East County Magazine

Ocotillo -- In a precedent that has horrified wildlife experts, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has authorized the “take” (meaning harassment, displacement or even death) of 10 endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep – five ewes and five lambs.

The decision comes after federal wildlife officials were provided photographic evidence that the endangered animals were seen in recent weeks on the site of the just-approved Ocotillo Express wind energy facility—a presence federal officials and the project developer have long denied.

Mark Jorgensen is the retired Superintendent of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which shares a five mile border with the Ocotillo Express wind project now under construction on adjacent public property owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). He is horrified at the decision to allow the killing of the sheep on land that until recently was designated as critical bighorn habitat.

Jorgensen calls the decision “astounding” in a comment submitted on the Biological Opinion, adding that the USF&W “is charged with protecting this endangered population—and it is not showing any leadership in safeguarding the [Endangered Species Act] ESA.”

According to the USF&WS website, “The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”

There are only about 950 Peninsular Bighorn Sheep left in the U.S. as of 2010. Their numbers had steadily declined prior to being declared an endangered species in 1998, according to the Bighorn Institute.

The “take” authorization is found in a Biological Opinion issued by the Carlsbad, California office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&WS) to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on April 25, 2012. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a final Record of Decision last week authorizing the Ocotillo wind facility. His decision relied on the USF&WS document, among others.

Wind energy corporations in other parts of the country have been issued take permits for endangered eagles, our national symbol--all part of new policies implemented amid the rush to fast-track so-called "green" energy projects.

Until recently, over 800,000 acres in the area were designated as critical habit for the Peninsular Desert Bighorn Sheep. But that number was recently sliced to less than half—370,000 acres—by the USF&WS, a convenient decision for Pattern Energy, developer of the 12,500 acre Ocotillo Express wind project as well as other local developers whose proposed projects were similar removed from bighorn habitat designation.

Jorgensen accuses the USF&WS of bowing to political pressures and ignoring evidence. “They claim this was a result of `new science’ and a legal challenge, but they’ve never produced the science to substantiate their reduction,” he wrote in the the Biological Opinion submitted on May 2, 2012.

At times, the habitat removal borders on sheer incredulity. The only officially designated bighorn habitat on the 12,500 Ocotillo wind site is an “island”, or median area between the north and southbound lanes of the Interstate 8 freeway.

The Ocotillo wind project shares a five-mile boundary with Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Jorgensen and others have voiced concerns that the wind project cuts off a key corridor used by the sheep to migrate to and from the park seasonally.

Jorgensen has previously turned whistleblower, telilng ECM that the California Governor's office issued a gag order two days before the deadline for comments on the wind project's Environmental Impact Statement -- preventing state park employees from turrning in a comment that had been worked on for months. The muzzled comments included concerns over the project's impacts on endangered Bighorn sheep, according to Jorgensen.

Governor Jerry Brown's office has denied that a gag order was issued. But the Borrego Sun subsequently published a news article revealing that multiple individuals with close ties to Anza Borrego Desert State Park confirmed that state park employees were gagged. The nonprofit Anza Borrego Desert State Foundation, however, has issued scathing criticism of the project's potential impacts on wildlife including Bighorn sheep and denounced both state and federal officials for failing in their duties to protect endangered wildlife and habitat.

Above the project site to the west, construction of the high-voltage Sunrise Powerlink line in McCain Valley has disrupted additional bighorn habitat—and now a second wind facility, Tule Wind, has been approved by the BLM for construction in McCain Valley. With trucks and helicopters throughout the region, California Highway Patrol has recently had to use bullhorns to scare displaced bighorn off the freeway itself.

Pattern did remove some turbines slated to go into rocky areas, but has insisted that no bighorn sheep have been seen on the flat, sandy areas.

Two photographers sent ECM photographs of bighorn in the area as recently as April. Those photos showed a herd of the endangered animals on the project boundary—some with radio tracking collars and ear tags visible. One shot shows sheep standing in flat sand, not rocks.

ECM sent those photos to federal wildlife officials to document presence of the sheep on the project site. But instead of taking action to protect the endangered animals, the USF&WS authorized their destruction—and Secretary Salazar signed their death warrant.

Jorgensen had proposed that the entire project be rejected. Failing that, he sought removal of eight turbines within three-quarters of a mile of a documented lambing area. He also urged federal officials to consider the “overwhelming cumulative impacts being generated in the area” including two wind projects, two high-voltage powerlines, I-8, Border Patrol’s increased activity, off-road-vehicle activity and more.

Astoundingly, the USF&WS document claims that the project does not constitute a significant loss in habitat.

Pattern has agreed to a monitoring and mitigation plan, including restoration of historic bighorn habitat at Carrizo Creek. However that does not account for the disruption in habitat conductivity that the massive project will cause -- a concern raised by numerous wildlife experts in the area.

The project developer misleadingly has stated that only a small fraction of the 12,500 acres will be impacted—but fails to count the spaces between turbines as impacted areas even though they will be beneath blades each with a sweep area the size of a football field, each generating infrasound capable of causing health impacts, blade flicker, and noise described by some as similar to a helicopter hovering constantly. Wind facilities can also generate stray voltage capable of causing injury or even death; entire herds of cattle have been known to die from ground current.

Ominously, the Biological Opinion further makes reference to “incidental take”, leaving the door open to authorize even more bighorn deaths.

“This is not acceptable for USF&WS to permit,” Jorgensen says of the five ewes and five lambs authorized for potential destruction. His comment concludes emphatically that the USF&WS has “NO EXCUSE for this action!”

A massive excavation area at the site will be for a 785,000 "pond", a worker told an ECM photographer Jim Pelley. Pelley fears the pond may contain brackish water that could harm bighorn sheep or other wildlife.

Courtney Coyle, attorney for the Viejas tribe, told ECM she did not see a reference to where the pond would be locatedin the project EIS. "This is part of the changing project descriptions issue," she said.

Significantly, the final project approval document signed by Salazar state that the project will power a mere 25,000 homes--a four-fifths drop from the 130,000 homes claimed by Pattern in its testimony to Imperial Valley Supervisors, County Planners, and in the EIS. Where did the missing 105,000 homes go? Were approvals granted under false pretexts?

Moreover, the wind speeds Pattern know acknowledges at the project site are lower than the Department of Energy's recommended minimum standard for a viable wind energy project.

The site also poses risks to human health, from deadly Valley Fever spores being kicked up by construction dust to infrasound hazards to residents of Ocotillo, who will be surrounded on three sides by whirling turbines 450 tall or more.

If the project is going to generate only a fifth of the power promised by proponents, and the hidden costs are staggering and irreversible, why hasn't the federal government halted the project and weighed whether federal subsidies should be withdrawn?

Robert Scheid is spokesman for the Viejas Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, one of several Indian tribes fighting to halt the project due to threats to Native American remains, artifacts, ancient geoglyphs and sacred sites. Scheid has called the Ocotillo project a "land grab of public lands by private corporations."

The Quechan tribe on Friday asked a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order to halt the devastation, after forensic dogs hired by tribes found six additional apparent cremation sites.

Meanwhile, bulldozers have begun the task of destroying the fragile desert terrain, wiping out habitat even as multiple lawsuits make their way into the courts seeking to protect Native American cultural sites as well as wildlife habitat.

Absent a restraining order soon, however, both the endangered Bighorn and countlesss Native American sacred sites may soon be gone with the wind.