Hunters and wildlife advocates are taking aim at plans to put 350 wind turbines on Lincoln County’s picturesque Mount Wilson and nearby ridges that are home to mule deer, elk and sage grouse.
They fear noise and vibrations from the turbine blades whirling on 300-foot towers will disrupt deer and elk migration to summer fawning areas and devastate the breeding grounds, or “leks,” of sage grouse.
“If you go in and put wind turbines on Mount Wilson, the sage grouse are gone,” Lincoln County Wildlife Advisory Board Chairman Cory Lytle said Thursday at a Las Vegas sportsmen’s gathering.
“Why put a wind farm there? It doesn’t make sense,” he said at the forum sponsored by the Coalition for Nevada’s Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation and the Desert-Las Vegas Chapter of Safari Club International.
The project proposed by Wilson Creek Wind Co., a subsidiary of Nevada Wind, calls for constructing the turbines in three phases on and near Mount Wilson, 20 miles northeast of Pioche and 110 miles northeast of Las Vegas. The project area includes Atlanta summit, White Rock and Table Mountain.
In an interview Friday, Nevada Wind Managing Partner Tim Carlson said he understands the concerns but that wildlife issues can be mitigated. Elk, for example, could be relocated to strengthen and improve herds in wilderness areas near the project.
A previous wind project Carlson had planned for a ridge at the Nevada Test Site, now called the Nevada National Security Site, was struck down because of Air Force concerns about turbines causing radar interference with warplanes on the Nellis training range. But the Department of Defense, he said, isn’t bothered by the location of the Mount Wilson project.
“It becomes difficult to find the right location and please everybody,” he said.
The economic benefits of clean, renewable energy need to be weighed, Carlson said. This project would create up to 400 construction jobs and 20 permanent jobs in addition to generating more than $1 million annually in tax revenues for Lincoln County.
But wildlife advocates wonder how the project will impact sage grouse, a Western game bird that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says warrants protection. The service this year decided not to list sage grouse as threatened or endangered because of other species that are closer to extinction.
In announcing the decision in March, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said making sage grouse a candidate species without a formal listing means that development of wind and solar farms can continue by locating them and transmission lines where sage grouse will be least affected.
“We need to find a way of protecting habitat but also develop much needed energy resources,” Salazar said on March 5.
At the sportsmen’s roundtable, Lytle said there are other places to build wind farms without having to scar the Wilson Creek range to build roads, transmission lines and substations. He also noted that the range has been designated by the Bureau of Land Management as “crucial” fawning grounds for mule deer and elk.
Michael McBeath, a member of the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners, described the project area as “the crown jewel of Lincoln County.” He said the wind farm, if built, would disrupt paths that deer and elk follow to reach food and water resources.
“When these projects start going in, they’re going to impact migratory corridors,” he said. “It’s a matter of planning and making sure they go in with the least impact on wildlife.”
Nevada Wind submitted project applications to the BLM in 2003 and renewed its right-of-way grant for the Wilson Creek and Table Mountain sites in 2007. The BLM expects to hold public meetings to field comments for an environmental impact statement in early 2011.
According to Lytle, many roads would have to be built through steep terrain, requiring removal of millions of tons of soil, to install and maintain turbines spread across 70 square miles.
Eric Petlock, field coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, said Nevada’s history shows that energy development has always been “one of the greatest threats to wildlife.”
He noted that dams for hydroelectric power development led to the demise of salmon runs from the Pacific Ocean to tributaries of the Snake River. During the 1800s, salmon ran the Owyhee River in northeastern Nevada until diversion dams in Oregon and Idaho caused the runs to taper off after the turn of the century. Salmon swam in Nevada until the Owyhee Dam was constructed in 1932.
Petlock said he recognizes the need to develop domestic energy sources to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. Yet, he said, “unfortunately there is no easy solution” to resolve conflicts between energy development and wildlife habitat.
Considering the magnitude of dozens of large-scale projects proposed for Nevada, “renewable energy could be stepping out of the frying pan into the fire,” he said.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.