Condors and Wind Energy

Alta East Wind Project Closer to Condor Core Range

^California condor, photo by Gary Kramer, courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service digital library.

May 30, 2013 - The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is one of the most endangered species in North America, yet the push for renewable energy is spilling into their core range with new wind projects proposed and approved in the southern California mountains.

Historically condors soared widespread across the western US searching out carcasses of elk, deer, ground squirrels, salmon, and other carrion. But indiscriminate shooting, habitat removal, and poisoning caused their population to plunge. The condor range shrank back to a core area in the southern Sierra Nevada, Tehachapi Mountains, and South Coast Range where they nested in remote and rugged wilderness. Lead shot used by hunters has been a particularly difficult cause of recent declines, as animals escaping with bullets and dying later are consumed by the condors. Lethal lead poisoning results, and is a serious threat to condor survival.

The free-flying condor population dwindled to less than 10 in the 1980s, and a decision was made to capture all wild individuals before they succumbed to lead poisoning, and breed them in captivity. Fortunately the breeding program was a success and condors were later released back into the wild. Currently wild populations have been re-introduced into south-central California, the Grand Canyon area of Arizona, and northern Baja California in Mexico. Other re-introductions may happen soon in Oregon.

Yet just as this critically endangered bird is beginning to make a comeback, it is faced with a new threat encroaching into its range: giant industrial wind turbines

Alta East Wind Project

At 153 megawatts on 2,592 acres (1,999 acres of Bureau of Land Management land, 593 acres of private land), this project by Terra-Gen Power LLC was approved on May 24, 2013. It sits three miles northwest of the Town of Mojave, 11 miles east of the City of Tehachapi in the southern Sierra Nevada of Kern County CA, right on the edge of a core area of recent condor flights and roosting. The original project consisted of 106 turbines, but was reduced to 51 turbines. 348 acres of Mojave Desert scrub and foothill habitat would be temporarily disturbed and 59 acres permanently disturbed. Terra-Gen proposed using Vestas V90 turbine generators up to 3 megawatts each, and a total height of 410 feet.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service admits:

"Wind energy has the potential to conflict with the recovery of the California condor unless projects are properly sited and measures are taken to minimize risks to California condors. The recovery program for the California condor is showing success, and the birds are expanding their range and reoccupying portions of their historic range, which includes areas of existing and proposed wind energy development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes it is imperative to use the best scientific and technical guidance available to ensure that wind energy development proceed without compromising California condor recovery." (California Condor Wind Energy Work Group, US Fish and Wildlife Service Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office,, accessed May 2013)

Controversial Condor Kill

Members of Basin & Range Watch were invited by BLM to participate in a conference call on May 24, the day the Record of Decision was released. Participants included the Fish and Wildlife Service, Terra-Gen, the San Diego Zoo (which has one of the captive breeding programs), and several large national environmental organizations to discuss these issues.

Steve Henry of the Ventura US Fish and Wildlife Service office explained that in their Biological Opinion that several minimization measures would be developed to try to avoid a condor collision with a wind turbine. A detection system would be set up to continually monitor the VHF radio signals of condors with radio transmitters attached to their wing. If one approached within a certain distance -- 2 miles -- the wind turbines would be curtailed. In a subsequent phone call with the company, it was explained that this radius was determined by assuming a condor flying 50 mph toward a turbine, giving 2 minutes to shut the turbine down. It took 60 seconds or less for one of Terra-Gen's turbines to shut down to a spin speed of less than 15 mph or less of the turning rotors, during a demonstration to agencies last October. Condors, however, have been known to fly 100 mph at times when riding the winds.

The wind company would give $100,000 per year for education and research to aid condor recovery efforts.

Most controversially, the company would apply for a take permit under the federal Endangered Species Act, allowing one condor to be accidentally killed. Technically, an "Incidental Take Statement" under section 9 of the ESA. One lethal take of a condor would be allowed at the wind project. This is a first.

FWS was of the opinion that the likelihood of a condor slipping through this detection system was low, although not all condors flying in the range have transmitters, and transmitters will not last the 30-year lifespan of the wind project.

FWS claimed that condors mostly fly in groups, so those without radio transmitters would likely be in groups with those that were transmittered. We believe this is a faulty assumption, as some members of Basin & Range Watch spent time viewing the last free-flying condors in the 1980s at their Los Padres National Forest strongholds. One day an adult condor decided to make a beeline across the San Joaquin Valley to the Sierra Nevada, then back by the evening to roost in the Coast Range. We talked with FWS biologists who were tracking this lone condor with a radio signal. Condors can easily fly 100 miles in a day and do not always stay in groups as they wander.

^California condors roosting in a snag at the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in southern California. Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service digital library.

Terra-Gen said they would use their detection system for their other wind projects in the area too. Eventually the VHF system would have to be replaced by a radar detection system, according to FWS.

Every condor detection would be reported to the agencies within 24 hours.

In Kern County, wind companies pay $180,000 per 100 turbines for a FWS fund to pay for tracking equipment for condors. However, Terra Gen said their new detection system would cost the company $2 million to implement, as it included a full-time biologist to scan the skies for condors.

FWS claimed Terra Gen's detection and avoidance system would "better protect" condors than not having a system at all. They called this "new and groundbreaking." Condors would now be able to co-exist with wind energy, they said. FWS said they were encouraging other wind project developers to apply for take permits, but most have been unwilling. So far, only Alta East has been required to get a take permit. Eventually FWS hoped a landscape conservation plan could be developed if all wind projects would work together. So far no regional numbers for allowable condor take have been developed.

If the wind project kills a condor, FWS would require the company to stop all turbine operation during the day when condors are flying, and only operate the project at night until consultation is re-initiated and a new avoidance and minimization plan drawn up. The company said this was a difficult economic situation if it were to happen, so they wanted to avoid night-time only generation as much as possible. Most money is made during daytime peak hours when providing electricity to the utilities.

FWS pointed out no wind project in the area has yet killed a condor. Only 138 birds are flying wild in California (240 in all of the wild populations currently in California, Baja, and Arizona), and a few have been detected near some wind projects such as the North Sky wind project in the Tehachapi Mountains. At present, most condors are dying from lead poisoning. The world total population of California condors in the wild and in captivity is around 417 as of this April, and they are slow to increase in numbers.

Lead Shot Education

Education programs will be developed over the next 6 months, and will include lead abatement education. The company said it would provide $46,000 per year as outreach to hunter groups on lead shot concerns in condor habitat, including hunter expos, shooting demonstrations, banners, posters, a website, and possible resources provided to existing environmental groups who have lead abatement programs.

$30,000 per year for 5 years would be provided for research into how condors interact with thermal in the region. High levels of lead toxicosis are still being seen in condors, and there is a need to study that more, said the company.

Lack of Transparency

Many conservationists are disturbed by the apparent lack of transparency in the formulation of the Biological Opinion, and many environmentalists were caught unaware that a take would be allowed for condors. This sets a precedent. FWS countered that the Biological Opinion is not a public review process, as is the environmental review carried out by BLM in processing the wind application.

Some conservationists questioned the rationale of encouraging more wind projects to apply for take permits on private land, when they have worked so hard to bring this rare bird back from the brink of extinction. In essence, a regional harvest of condors would be allowable in this scenario, right on the edge of their core stronghold. FWS disagreed and said this would not be a harvest, but permits bringing the protection level up for the condor.

Golden Eagle and Swainson's Hawk

Other raptors might fly through the area, and Terra-Gen agreed to watch for these birds as well and curtail turbines if any were detected close by. The company has also applied for an eagle take permit under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Most generators may eventually apply for eagle take permits, according to Terra Gen.

Swainson's hawks are recovering from a historic plunge in population in California, and are protected under the Migratory Bird Act. They winter in grasslands in South America and make long migrations north to breed in riparian trees in parts of California where they hunt insects and rodents in prairies and agricultural fields. Typically large numbers pass over mountain ranges in southern California on their way northwards, and we have seen some indivuduals flying over the West Mojave Desert edges near the mountains on their migration.

Terra-Gen carried out two years of pre-construction surveys for birds and bats, including for Swainson's haws, prairie falcons, and any raptor nesting in the area. No Swainson's hawks were detected. Post-construction mortality surveys on the wind projects are done, and mortality of birds in general was not high according to the company. For the 750 wind turbines operating in the area, no killed Swainson's hawks were found during mortality surveys.


BLM project page:

American Bird Conservancy press release:

See also ReWire:

Mojave Desert Blog:

US Fish and Wildlife Service page on the southern California condor flock:


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