Montana Wind Turbines Give Way To Raptors

The breezy ridges that are so attractive to wind-power developers are also, quite often, prime raptor nesting territory. That’s the case on Kevin Rim, sandstone cliffs in north central Montana where NaturEner is building a 189-megawatt wind farm that will generate power for San Diego Gas and Electric.

If this sounds like a situation that could lead to a classic pitched developer-environmentalist battle, well, it did have that appearance – but in a surprising turn, the developer of the Rim Rock Wind Farm has agreed to relocate more than two dozen turbines, pushing them away from raptor nesting sites.

Rim Rock Wind Farm, Montana Aubudon

image via NaturEner

“At the urging of Montana Audubon, NaturEner voluntarily agreed to relocate each of 25 wind turbines to provide a buffer of approximately ½ mile from historic and active raptor nests,” the company and organization said in a joint statement [PDF]. “This commitment was made after the project design was finalized, financing completed, and actual construction had begun.”

A memorandum of understanding [PDF] reached by the parties added that the relocation came “at great expense to Rim Rock,” and included acknowledgement from Montana Audubon that NaturEner’s actions in the matter were “unprecedented and extraordinary.”

According to Audubon, 10 species of raptors are documented to breed at Kevin Rim, including four species that are of global (ferruginous hawk), continental (Swainson’s hawk, prairie falcon), or state (golden eagle) “conservation concern.”

Rim Rock Wind Farm, montana wind energy

image via NaturEner

But with the project on private land and no Montana wind development regulations lax, Audubon’s leverage was limited. Projects on federal land at the very least give interest groups a chance to comment on the potential impact of a development.

On the other hand, some raptors – including golden eagles, which are found in the Kevin Rim area – are protected by federal law, regardless of whether they’re on public or private land.

The Obama administration recently finalized new voluntary siting guidelines that were endorsed by the wind industry and many major environmental groups, including Audubon. While the voluntary guidelines don’t carry the big stick of mandatory regulation, they do come with a carrot: They state that developers found to be in violation of laws and regulations – whose turbines, for instance, kill a protected species – could potentially escape trouble if they can show “documented efforts to communicate with the (Fish and Wildlife) Service and adhere to the Guidelines.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.