Potential economic impacts: traditional industries

While some conservationists would see listing as a victory in the effort to protect America’s declining sagebrush, other groups now profiting from the sagebrush ecosystem—energy companies and ranchers, for instance—would face new challenges.

The Endangered Species Act prohibits any activity that could push the listed species closer to extinction. Section 9 of the Act makes it illegal for anyone on any piece of land, public or private, to kill or hurt a Sage-grouse. This includes interrupting normal behavior, such as eating, mating, or finding shelter, through harassment or habitat destruction.

Furthermore, Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, the Jeopardy Prohibition, makes it illegal for an agency to, “take action which may jeopardize the continued existence of threatened or endangered species, or adversely modify or destroy designated critical habitat.”

According to lawyer Brennan, “If you are applying for a right-of-way or a POD [plan of development] or what have you, and the agency—BLM—and FWS consult and conclude that the impact would be sufficiently significant to jeopardize the species, you don’t get that BLM permit.”

According to the maps produced by the governor’s Sage-grouse implementation team, the bird’s habitat overlaps 87 percent of the coal, 64 percent of the oil, 83 percent of the natural gas, and 38 percent of developable wind resources in the state of Wyoming. State government officials fear an endangered species listing of the Greater Sage-grouse would significantly change the energy industry in the state. Furthermore, 40 percent of private land and over 90 percent of grazing leases would be affected.

“I think you can see why we are so concerned about the economic impact of a full listing,” said Clark, energy infrastructure advisor to Gov. Freudenthal. “What we live on in this state is mineral revenues, and we would be subjecting a lot of that to the vagaries of the Endangered Species Act.”

Potential economic impacts: wind energy

As the governor’s office works to prevent listing, it has also chosen a favorite between the traditional carbon-based energy industry and the new wind energy industry. The Sage-grouse core area strategy clearly favors oil and gas; it pushes wind development into areas that are not the industry’s first choice.

According to a 2010 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Wyoming ranks eighth in wind energy resources, with an estimated potential of 552,000 megawatts of production, although at the end of 2009 the state was just 12th in actual output.

For most residents, the reasons to invite the wind industry to the state are economic. For example, a sales tax exemption on wind energy is set to run out at the end of 2011, meaning counties with wind farms could soon expect to collect up to $3 million on construction of a 100-megawatt project. Property taxes would add up to another $1.5 million for the same project. And during construction, a wind farm may create up to 300 jobs, though only 10 to 15 would be permanent once the facility is built.

The state Legislature just passed a bill creating an excise tax of $1 per megawatt-hour on wind energy. If signed by the governor, this tax would create revenues to be split 40:60 between the state and county governments, potentially bringing in millions to counties where the wind energy is produced

Despite the economic promise of wind development, some residents hesitate. Ed Werner, Converse County Commissioner, notes that sales tax is one-time and property taxes decline over time, while residents must live with wind developments indefinitely.

Few want to live under the immense transmission lines that will be necessary to fully develop wind energy resources. And when faced with the enormous and very visible wind “farms,” some feel that Wyoming open spaces and wildlife habitat are being ruined so people living in states to the south and west can enjoy our “clean” energy.

Very little is known about how Sage-grouse react to turbines and other wind infrastructure, so agencies are uncertain about how to proceed with wind development in Sage-grouse habitat. Sage-grouse don’t fly high enough to hit turbine blades, but they are sensitive to human activity and to tall structures. In an ongoing study of 75 female Sage-grouse tagged with radio transmitters, nine nested within a mile of a wind turbine. Still, no one knows certainly whether Sage-grouse continue normal reproductive behavior adjacent to wind facilities, or how much of a buffer they require between leks and wind development.

In July of 2009, the federal wildlife service wrote the Wyoming Game and Fish Department that “constructing wind farms in core areas, even for research purposes, prior to demonstrating that it can be done with no impact to Sage-grouse, negates the usefulness of the core area concept as a conservation strategy and brings into question whether adequate regulatory mechanisms are in place to protect the species.”

Sage-grouse “core areas” exclude from development some 22 percent of viable wind resources. Wind representatives were brought to the Sage-grouse implementation team very late, and unlike with natural gas and coal, the designations of core areas has done little to accommodate the wishes of the wind industry.

Molvar agrees with the decision to keep wind development out of core areas.

“That’s a benefit for Sage-grouse,” he said. “If only the state government had the backbone to apply the same kinds of strong protections from the oil and gas industry, they could have made a much better case. Then this listing could really be avoided.”

Emilene Ostlind is communications coordinator for the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, and edits Western Confluence magazine, a publication of the UW Ruckelshaus...

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