The California condor's slow 20-year climb back from the brink of extinction has long been a fragile not-quite-success story in the conservation world. So when the news came Friday that developers of a wind-energy project near the Mojave Desert would not face criminal charges if the blades killed a single condor, environmental groups expressed grave concern.
"This blindsided folks," Kelly Fuller of the American Bird Conservancy said in an interview, adding that the public was not aware that allowing unpenalized condor deaths was being considered there.
In a news release, she wrote that "allowing the legal killing of one of the most imperiled birds in the United States threatens endangered species conservation efforts across the country."
It has been 46 years since the condor - a bald, black carrion-eater that can fly nearly three miles high on wings that span up to 10 feet from tip to tip - was declared endangered. In that time, the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service has hardly ever waived criminal penalties for the "taking," or killing, of a condor.
Lisa Belenky, a lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, "We really need a global solution, not one at a time." An overall approach to wind-energy projects by the Interior Department, mirroring the landscape approach to desert-based solar sites, should be instituted, she said.
Amy Krause, a spokeswoman for the department's Bureau of Land Management, which is granting the wind developer Terra-Gen Power a 30-year easement to put wind turbines on its land, said there had been no recorded instances of condor mortality associated with wind turbines. But in granting the easement, she said, the government had to consider all possibilities, even remote ones.
Krause and Paul McKim, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in California, said the wind farm's developers had planned multiple lines of defense - including electronic sensors that can see condors miles away and day-in, day-out sky monitoring by a wildlife biologist - to further reduce the slim chance of a condor striking a turbine.
The tableau presented in Friday's announcement and the distressed reaction was familiar: Wind-energy opponents often cite avian mortality to bolster their case. But the origin of the Interior Department's decision to grant the "take" permit near the Mojave Desert remained unclear, since no condors have died there.
The dry hills between the California towns of Mojave and Tehachapi have long been home to a whirling forest of wind turbines. Putting Terra-Gen's Alta East project there is like erecting a new building in Midtown Manhattan - it does not change the view or the danger to birds very much.
And even without a safety system like the one Terra-Gen plans, no condor has been killed by the existing turbines, which are at the edge of the bird's range. The Alta East site is designed to capitalize on the downdrafts of air on the eastern side of the dry hills; condors in general seek out updrafts.
"We would not build on the other side" of the hills, said Gregory Wetstone, a vice president and spokesman for Terra-Gen. Condors, he said, are not found "heading south and east of the ridge." He added: "It's not their traditional habitat. And we patrol to make sure there are no carcasses that would attract condors."
The Alta East project is designed to generate 153 megawatts of electric power, bringing the overall capacity developed or managed by Terra-Gen closer to 1,500 megawatts of wind power.
Wetstone said Terra-Gen did not request the take permit and added that the company was sharing the benefits of its condor monitoring program with nearby wind-turbine operators. It has also committed to paying for education about the dangers of lead shot. Condors eat the carcasses of animals killed with lead bullets and can die as a result.
There are currently 234 condors living in the wild mountains of central California. Over the last few years, more than 40 others have died of lead poisoning.
"We feel very good about what we're doing in the mountains near Tehachapi," Wetstone said.
By FELICITY BARRINGER
The New York Times