Transmission line rebuild could result in rattlesnake deaths – Wisconsin DNR

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) expects Dairyland Power Cooperative’s rebuilding of an aging transmission line in the western Wisconsin counties of Trempealeau and La Crosse to result in the demise of some rare rattlesnakes but says the species’ overall survival should not be jeopardized.

Dairyland proposes rebuilding approximately 13 miles of its “Q-1” 161-kV transmission line from the Marshland substation located in Trempealeau County to the Briggs Road substation located in La Crosse County. It is seeking a DNR “incidental take” permit for the project because the rebuilding of the line may result in the loss of some snakes. Specifically, “Incidental take” refers to the unintentional loss of individual endangered or threatened animals or plants that does not put the state’s overall population of the species at risk.

The transmission line was constructed in the 1950s, is in poor condition, is reaching the end of its service life, and must be rebuilt soon, according to company officials.

“We’ve had three structure failures in the last five years in the wetlands complex” due to the deterioration of the structures over time, Chuck Thompson, Dairyland’s manager of siting and regulatory affairs, told TransmissionHub Dec. 10.

The line crosses approximately three miles of the Black River wetlands, a possible habitat area for the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, which is on the state’s endangered species list and a candidate for the federal endangered species list. The wetlands are part of the Van Loon State Wildlife Refuge and the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge.

“This is one of only two known locations in the state of Wisconsin where this rattlesnake is thought to be located [though] it hasn’t been seen for over five years,” Thompson said.

DNR staff concluded that the proposed project is “not likely to appreciably reduce the likelihood of the survival or recovery of this species within the state, the whole plant-animal community of which it is a part or the habitat that is critical to its existence,” the DNR said in a Dec. 5 statement.

However, the DNR’s determination of potential for an incidental take triggers a 30-day public comment period and implements several reporting and construction methods to minimize impact on the reptile.

The utility is planning mitigation measures to minimize the adverse effect on the endangered species, and those measures will be incorporated into the proposed incidental take permit, according to the DNR. Those measures will include conducting construction activities during the winter months.

“The snakes up here will hibernate, usually starting in October, so we are filing for permits with [the U.S.] Fish and Wildlife [Service] and the DNR to at least do preliminary borings this winter while they’re dormant,” Thompson said, noting that the utility believes the boring can be accomplished without driving on any snake habitat.

The borings will provide information that will enable the utility to better define the design and the processes that will have to be followed.

“It’ll take us about a month to do borings, and once we have those borings, we can do the engineering,” Thompson said. “Then, we will hopefully come in next fall and set the poles with helicopters, which is another mitigation measure.”

Cost of the project won’t be determined until the engineering is complete. The utility is aiming to perform the rebuild during the fall of 2014, before commencement of construction on the CapX2020 Alma-to-Holmen transmission project. If it is unable to complete the project next fall, it will be forced to wait until 2015 because the Q1 line cannot be taken out of service once construction begins on the CapX 2020 project, according to Thompson.

CapX2020 is a joint initiative of 11 transmission owning utilities in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin formed to upgrade and expand the electric transmission grid to ensure continued reliable and affordable service. The CapX2020 projects provide needed transmission capacity to support new generation outlet, including renewable energy, according to the CapX2020 web site.