Federal officials are weighing public comments on a proposed wind energy project that would add to an expanding crop of turbines in south-central Wyoming. Though the 79-turbine Two Rivers project is relatively small compared to other wind projects in the works, some worry about mounting, cumulative threats to wildlife and what critics describe as the industrialization of otherwise quaint agricultural land and pristine wildlife habitat.

Canada-based BluEarth Renewables’ 420-megawatt capacity Two Rivers Wind Energy Project would span 20,100 acres — erecting 60 wind turbines at a location north of Medicine Bow and 19 at another location about 25 miles south near Rock River, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s draft environmental assessment of the project. A public comment period for the EA ended in December, and the BLM will decide whether to issue a right-of-way permit in April or May, the agency said.

This map depicts the proposed Two Rivers wind energy project, and neighboring wind energy facilities. (Wyoming BLM)

BluEarth has also applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Incidental Eagle Take permits. Those would allow for up to eight bald eagle and 133 golden eagle mortalities at the Medicine Bow location, and three bald eagle and 84 golden eagle mortalities at the Rock River location over the 30-year permit terms. The project areas also overlap crucial winter ranges for pronghorn, a “central flyway” for migratory birds and a region that’s home to at least nine bat species.

Although the FWS will require a long list of pre- and post-construction measures to minimize wildlife impacts — such as buffer zones around eagle nests and construction-timing restrictions for pronghorn — the cumulative impacts of the Two Rivers project when combined with nearby existing and planned wind and solar energy developments remain largely unknown, according to federal agencies.

Regarding pronghorn, for example, “Limited information exists on the effects of wind development on big game habitat use,” the BLM states in the EA. BluEarth Renewables is helping pay for an ongoing pronghorn study in the region by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the University of Wyoming. However, “data from this multi-year, basin-wide study is not yet available for consideration in this EA,” the BLM wrote.

These pronghorn were pictured in central Wyoming in 2006. (Greg Goebel/FlickrCC)

Despite that language, the ongoing study is guiding the developer’s plans to mitigate wildlife impacts, BluEarth Director of Regulatory and Environment Glenn Isaac said. The basin-wide study, and BluEarth’s commitment to adapting to local scientific analysis speaks to the company’s awareness of its role in cumulative impacts, Isaac said.

In addition to potential impacts to wildlife, and despite the economic and climate-related benefits of wind energy development, the sparsely populated region is quickly becoming “industrialized” to the point of spoiling the quality of life in the region, Carbon County Commission Vice Chair Sue Jones said.

“There’s wind turbines and big power lines and small power lines and little substations, and there is a point where enough is enough,” Jones said. “You’ve saturated an area and we’re almost [at a tipping point] in Carbon County.”

Industrialization

There are already 462 wind turbines within 10 miles of the Two Rivers project areas, and numerous proposals by other wind energy developers would add hundreds more in the region straddling Carbon and Albany counties. Recent permitting milestones for major new interstate transmission power lines — Gateway West, Gateway South and TransWest Express — combined with federal incentives for renewable energy on federal BLM lands are unleashing a flood of ambitious plans for more wind and solar development in the region and throughout the state.

PacifiCorp’s Gateway West transmission project will help boost new renewable energy projects in Wyoming. (PacifiCorp)

Power Company of Wyoming’s planned Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project — also in Carbon County — will erect 600 wind turbines across a public-private checkerboard of 320,000 acres south of Sinclair. It will be the largest onshore wind energy facility in the United States. Currently at more than 3,000 megawatts, wind energy accounts for nearly a third of the state’s total electrical generation capacity. Wyoming could see an additional 6,000 megawatts of new wind power capacity by 2030, according to those close to the industry.

The booming renewable energy industry puts local, conservative, pro-development officials like Jones in a difficult position, she said. Even if individual developers make good on promises to go beyond minimum requirements to avoid wildlife impacts and to meet the needs of landowners and nearby communities, the sum of dozens of industrial projects is impossible to foresee and difficult to manage.

A truck hauls a wind turbine blade through Medicine Bow in July 2020. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Even residents of Medicine Bow — strongly in support of wind energy development, according to Jones — have tired of the “winky-blinky” red light beacons that warn aircraft, she said. Though it hasn’t objected to the Two Rivers project or others, Jones said, the Carbon County Commission is scrambling to initiate a new land-use-planning study to better leverage local input on where and how future industrial development occurs. 

“You can have too much of a good thing, and that’s where we’re at,” Jones said. “No amount of money replaces those things that are part of our environment, that are part of our economy, that are part of our lifestyle.”

Wildlife considerations

Though it hasn’t yet made a determination, the parameters of the incidental take permits under consideration for the Two Rivers project — up to 11 bald eagles and 217 golden eagles over 30 years — constitute what the FWS considers a potential loss that won’t threaten the sustainability of local and migratory eagle populations.

Federal law guiding such incidental take permits, specifically for golden eagles, requires “compensatory mitigation” such as retrofitting existing power poles to reduce electrocutions. “Adaptive management” — a bureaucratic term for changing operations in response to unacceptable impacts — is also required. 

Deviating from a traditional 2-mile buffer zone, the FWS recommended a 1-mile buffer zone between turbines and eagle nests for the Two Rivers project, according to the BLM’s draft assessment. As a condition of waiving the 2-mile buffer zone, the company must agree to seasonal restrictions such as shutting down wind turbines within 2 miles during golden eagle breeding and nesting seasons — which means blades couldn’t spin during daylight hours from Jan. 15 through August.

Wildlife biologist Mike Lockhart displays the wingspan of a young adult male golden eagle he trapped and released in June 2022 in the Shirley Basin. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The eagle and raptor mitigation plan for the project, though not finalized, is woefully inadequate and based on projections that are not backed by enough local data, according to wildlife biologist Mike Lockhart, who tracks golden eagles in the region for the U.S. Geological Survey and Conservation Science Global. Alone, Two Rivers would encroach on some of the best golden eagle habitat in the state — particularly for breeding pairs, he said. More broadly, federal agencies are issuing incidental eagle take permits and applying eagle mitigation requirements in piecemeal fashion. The agency’s analysis also appears to be based on data that fails to account for the extent of likely but unverified eagle mortalities related to wind energy, he said.

“The rapid expansion and massive footprint of proposed, new projects will exponentially impact golden eagles and other wildlife to increased levels of additive loss never experienced before,” Lockhart wrote in comments submitted to the BLM.

It’s critical to add renewable energy resources in the fight against climate change, Lockhart told WyoFile. But it doesn’t have to come at the cost of irreplaceable wildlife habitats. The allowable eagle mortalities the FWS is considering for the Two Rivers project alone could devastate the resident population, he said.

“Their eagle conservation plan is meaningless. If the [Fish and Wildlife Service] is serious about protecting eagles, particularly breeding birds, they just got to put their foot down,” Lockhart said.

Rush to develop

Laramie resident Douglas Balmain spends a lot of time exploring the Shirley Basin north of Medicine Bow, where wind energy is fast encroaching upon an unspoiled landscape that “holds a lot of secrets,” he said. Those include rare plants and cultural artifacts. 

Shirley Basin skies pictured July 1, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“The more you look, the more you get to know it and the more you’re awed by it,” Balmain said.

The rush to develop renewable energy sources — particularly in Wyoming — seems to be moving toward undisturbed public lands rather than already-disturbed places, Balmain said. Addressing one problem — climate change — shouldn’t create more problems like the loss of wild landscapes and habitats, he said.

“We’re faced with a problem that we’ve been creating for centuries, and we’re trying to address it in a decade,” he said. “I just don’t have high hopes that we’re gonna get that right.”

The pace of wind energy development, along with a potential boom in solar development on public lands, is a growing concern in Albany County as well, according to Albany County Commissioner Pete Gosar. 

The transition from climate-warming fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy “should have happened decades ago,” he said. Now, there’s a rush to develop without having all the necessary data to make informed decisions that allow for growth while protecting wildlife and other vital landscape characteristics.

“There are sacrifices that we don’t want to make just because we don’t have enough information or enough help to do smart development,” Gosar said.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. This is the managing partner of Two Rivers Ranch who has not spent a night off the ranch in over 4 years and feel I know much more than someone who is possibly here during a few daylight hours 4-5 times a year. I have been threated by BLM biologists that if I didn’t allow access to my private ground they were going to declare every POSSIBLE nest active if I didn’t allow access, funny I thought I paid my taxes and my bank payments on the private parts of the ranch. These people have never contacted me and I’m in those pastures EVERYDAY running water tanks 5-6 hours a day and never see what they see. Private citizens are never thought of and government over reach is outlandish because our stewardship of this country’s most precious resources are discounted even though we cherish the land that pays our bills. This is hard country and the income received only goes to improve our ranching operations and to make them more productive as America’s farmland is being gobbled up for urban development. Maybe just maybe you should see one of your birds pick the eyes out of a new born calf before it gets up and you would know a little more about what really goes on out here in nature instead of what you see in your wildlife documentaries. Yes, these birds are majestic but they can coexist with the turbines, they will adapt they’ve been around a long time.

  2. The ‘industrialization’ of rural Wyoming happened a long time ago. If it wasn’t for that, we would have half the residents we have now.

    My suggestion: Move all the giant wind turbines to state lands in Teton County, the county that preaches about how critical it is to use renewable energy will no doubt welcome them with open arms. Let their raptors have all the fun. And their viewsheds be enhanced with the aerial artwork.

  3. Many of us warned years ago that this stampede needs much stronger regulation and planning. The industry, like the coal, oil, gas, and trona industries, should face penalties for killing birds, not get exemptions.

    The wind power lobby, especially for Anschutz’s Chokecherry and Sierra Mader projects, has the Wyoming Legislature and Gov. Gordon in thrall.
    The BLM needs to take a step back … but it won’t.

  4. This ruins land, kills wildlife , how do they recycle the materials they use. Leave us ALONE!!! Why do you need to change things? MONEY, MONEY, MONEY. Rich be richer and we all pay the price. Shame on you!

  5. Is it just me or are people really that hypocritical about renewable energy here in the West? I hear complaints about wind turbines spoiling the pristine prairie views but rarely hear any complaints about the massive holes that coal mines have created or how the noise from pump jacks and oil wells and treaters are destroying the sweet sounds of the open prairie. Has anyone else ever driven past Midwest and Edgerton? Or the Bakken field in North Dakota? Remember the guy from Gillette who tried to shoot up a substation because they built a huge collection point 1/4 mile from his house and the noise was deafening?

    History has shown us that no one really gives a flying fig about the prairie if there is money to be made from ripping it up or drilling holes in it.

  6. The area in question is largely considered the best corridor of wind power in the country. There are 25 million people in Southern California that this corridor can provide power for that might run over all environmental concerns. An excellent book on the subject is “Superpower” by Russell Gold.

  7. Way to go, dummies. Keep at it and you’ll destroy everything natural and have nothing but human gadgets absolutely everywhere…not to mention the wealthy robber barons who profit from them…and you still won’t have enough electricity, along with lithium and rare-earth elements for your electroeggmobiles and solar panels.

    Just another example of why the human monkey should go extinct. Our self-extinction would be our only beneficial contribution to the health of the planet since we appeared on it. We are, and have been, too busy plundering to give a damn about anything else. It’s embedded in our faulty genome.

  8. Where are all the screaming objections from Powder River Basin Resource Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Earth Justice, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and the other dozens of “environmental” groups? Their hypocrisy is stunning, and sickening. Image the volume and shrillness of protests if a mining project or oil and gas project was projected to kill hundreds of eagles in prime breeding habitat over a period a few short decades. Why do politicians continue to believe all the sky is falling fear mongering BS spouted by the incredibly rich NGOs when it is clear that what the so called “green” groups are really about is getting and maintaining political power, not protecting mother earth. Their hypocrisy knows no limits.

    1. Complaining about fear mongering, while fear mongering is apparently a new hobby of the gullible ol’ party.

  9. The advent of the automobile in the early 1900’s was hailed as the solution to a omnipresent source of pollution, i.e. horseshit. But by the 1950’s our cities were choking in the pollution from automobile emissions. There’s a lesson here, let’s hope we learn from it.

  10. This article could have done a lot more good had it appeared, say, two or three years ago. I must admit that until I retired from UW in 2020 the proposals for these local wind plants (a few solar plants too) were not on my radar, but beginning with Rail Tie permitting I began to provide public comment in multiple meetings to county commissioners, WAPA, the state industrial siting commission and so forth — without much success so far. I have not met many Wyoming residents who are engaged at this point but all should be. There are nearly a thousand square miles of projects permitted or constructed in Albany and Carbon counties.

    The impact statements (EISs and EAs) and developer applications are a lot of wishful thinking combined with some misdirection meant to produce a positive benefit to cost ratio for Wyoming. But just claiming new tax revenues for the State and counties along with a modest bump in jobs hardly begins to convey a true picture of impacts to wildlife, viewsheds, night skys, and even noise pollution in some areas; not to mention the social impact of the boom/bust nature of these projects. There are trade-offs not widely known or considered.

    As an introduction to the sort of thinking these projects generate I urge everyone to read the EA provided by BLM for this Two Rivers project. Read especially the part about mortality to Golden and Bald Eagles and the pretzel-like logic used to wave these concerns away. It’s unbelievable. But the cult-like thinking surrounding climate worries and our responses runs very deep. Even the state chapter of the Sierra Club approves of these projects.

    I would be happy to travel to any Wyoming locale and provide a presentation on these renewable energy projects from the viewpoint I have developed as an engineer and geophysicist over the past four decades.

    Kevin Kilty
    Laramie

  11. after the wind turbines have outlived their usefulness what landfill where all that oil & heavy metal be accepted ?
    i will go out on a limb & say none.

    p.s. there will be plenty of eagle feathers scattered around the wind turbines !

  12. “Limited information exists on the effects of wind development on big game habitat use”

    Funny. Sounds like someone needs to spend time on Google Scholar.