Bird concerns slow Western transmission projects

Several major transmission projects across the West are being delayed as developers work to identify route options that will avoid the core habitat of the greater sage grouse, a two-foot tall, ground-dwelling bird that was declared a candidate for the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service in 2010.

The birds, sometimes referred to as “prairie chickens,” are found at elevations ranging to 9,000 feet and are highly dependent on sagebrush for cover and feed. They are also bellwether species, meaning that protecting the sage grouse would protect other species as well, Heather Feeney, a spokesperson with the Idaho Bureau of Land Management (BLM), told TransmissionHub Aug. 15.

The Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) in December 2011 issued an interim policy for conservation measures to be taken to preserve sage grouse habitat. The policy is expected to be in effect until 2014.

“That policy on sage grouse habitat conservation is designed to keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list,” Feeney said. “It’s been an interim policy because we’re also engaged in a planning process West-wide to put in place changes to our land use plans across the West with the same goal of trying to make sure the bird doesn’t get listed.”

The interim policy does not allow for grandfathering of projects and therefore affects projects currently in development as well as those that are planned, Feeney said.

A determination by the FWS that the sage grouse should be added to the endangered species list would drastically change the way sage grouse habitat is handled on lands across the West, both public and private, Feeney said.

Though the sage grouse has habitats all over the West, in Idaho there are large parcels of habitat that are undisrupted and have become important for that reason, she said.

The BLM has identified “priority” habitats for the sage grouse; if the bird is listed as endangered, those habitats would thereafter be designated “critical.” Such a designation presumes that the only activity on that land would be wildlife activity, Feeney said. Use of the land for any other reason would place a much higher burden on an applicant to show that the proposed land use would not endanger the habitat, she added.

However, the FWS does not currently have the resources to implement that listing, Feeney said. “So we do have a window where we can put in place conservation measures and look at potential impacts to sage grouse proposed use authorizations and try to either find ways to avoid adversely impacting sage grouse habitat or mitigating those impacts.”

For a transmission line, that effort involves a mile-by-mile analysis of the territory through which a line would be routed, the identification of sage grouse habitat, and recommendations for routing around it.

Feeney cautioned that there is no guarantee that FWS will find the BLM’s efforts adequate.

Mitigation efforts are complicated by the sage grouse’s habitation patterns, Feeney said. Not only do the birds migrate from place to place, the places they choose are specific locations they return to repeatedly, rather than types of locations. For other species, habitats can be re-created in other locations, but for the sage grouse, that cannot be done.

Projects affected

Developers and project managers say those mitigation measures, which include identifying routes that avoid the bird’s habitat, touch virtually all projects in the West.

The Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI) has seen delays related to the sage grouse conservation efforts. NorthWestern Energy (NYSE:NWE), the project’s sponsor, expects a delay in the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) of six to nine months, CEO Robert Rowe said in July. He noted that the Idaho BLM and the Montana DEQ have not provided the company with a fully updated schedule.

The Boardman-to-Hemingway project is also facing delays, in part due to environmental considerations. Earlier this month, developer Idaho Power’s president and CFO Darrel Anderson cited continuing challenges including environmental considerations. Company officials said the project will not meet the original in-service target date of mid-2016, and that an in-service date prior to 2018 is unlikely.

Idaho Power’s joint project with PacifiCorp, Gateway West, has also been affected, Feeney and Wyoming-based BLM spokesperson Beverly Gorny said. The BLM is expected to issue a DEIS for that project in the fall, Feeney said. In addition to considerations for the sage grouse, the project also has to consider birds of prey, as the project may affect the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in southwestern Idaho.

Idaho Power is a subsidiary of IDACORP (NYSE:IDA).

Delays to address concerns about the sage grouse have also affected PacifiCorp’s Gateway South project, Gorny said.

The DEIS for the TransWest Express was delayed to the spring of 2013 so cooperating agencies can identify additional route alternatives that will address potential impacts on sensitive areas.

The Zephyr project has not yet started the environmental review, so it has not yet felt the effects of increased environmental concern, according to Gorny.

Effects trickle down, will persist

While major transmission projects are being affected, they are by no means the only projects affects by concerns over the bird.

Wind generation projects in the sensitive areas are also being delayed, and even local farmers are being asked to take actions to protect the birds.

In 2010, the Oregon National Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published a two-page flyer stating that livestock fences had caused the deaths of “at least 36 sage grouse” in Utah and 21 in Wyoming. The brochure went on to recommend ways of making livestock fences more “wildlife-friendly.”

While concerns about the sage grouse and its habitat are causing delays currently measured in months, those could potentially expand to years, until a final decision is made on the bird’s fate.

A settlement approved by a federal judge subsequent to the sage grouse’s 2010 listing as a candidate for the endangered species list requires federal officials to make a final listing decision for sage grouse in 2015.

About Rosy Lum 525 Articles
Rosy Lum, Analyst for TransmissionHub, has been covering the U.S. energy industry since 2007. She began her career in energy journalism at SNL Financial, for which she established a New York news desk. She covered topics ranging from energy finance and renewable policies and incentives, to master limited partnerships and ETFs. Thereafter, she honed her energy and utility focus at the Financial Times' dealReporter, where she covered and broke oil and gas and utility mergers and acquisitions.