Wyoming has been at the center of the storm over how much wind farm developers should be subject to limits on development in the name of protecting wildlife habitat, thanks to the hot-button issue of the sage grouse, which has been dancing on the edge of federal endangered species listing for several years. In general, with the exception of bird and bat deaths caused by flying into or near whirling turbine blades, wind farms have been assumed to be benign in relation to wildlife habitat. The noise made by turbines is considered to be moderate enough to have minimal impact on nearby wildlife (though recent National Park Service research that quantifies the dramatic reductions in listening area caused by small increases in background noise may eventually change this thinking).
This week, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department approved a set of recommendations that will guide the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council on permit applications for major projects in the state, including wind farms numbering at least 30 turbines. Under the guidelines, construction activity will be halted within two miles of an active grouse lek during the mating season each spring, though turbines will be allowed to operate in any location more than a quarter mile from a lek (increased to six tenths of a mile for one species). Restrictions on wind farms within two miles of wildlife refuges were softened in the final draft, which requires simply that developers coordinate with the Game and Fish Department and US Fish and Wildlife Service when building near refuges or state wildlife management areas. Developers are urged to avoid big game wintering and birthing ranges, but if siting in these areas “cannot be avoided,” then construction activity must cease during the relevant times of year; again, construction is assumed to be a disturbance, while operations are assumed to be benign.
Many ranchers opposed the new rules, citing private property rights, while environmental advocates urged larger buffers, including six-tenths of a mile for all species. “You’ve got one set of concerns saying we don’t have enough restriction, and the other side saying we’ve got way too much,” WGFD deputy director John Emmerich said. “I think we’ve done a credible job of trying to address the needs for wildlife and still accommodate reasonable levels of development.”