In 2008, the United States led the world in wind-power generation, providing 35% of the nation's new electrical generating capacity via wind power facilities. Montana ranks fifth among states for wind energy potential. While only two large-scale wind-energy facilities currently exist within the state, numerous others are planned, and several pending projects stand to vastly increase electrical transmission out of state, which will spark additional development.
Wind facilities are not stand-alone features - they cover vastly more area than the footprint of the turbines, requiring extensive road systems and transmission corridors. Significantly increasing wind-energy production will require millions of acres to accommodate development. The challenge for wind energy development in Montana is to produce relatively clean energy that does not contribute to global climate change, while minimizing impacts to wildlife and cultural and aesthetic resources.
Wind-energy development has progressed with very little science-based policy analysis to examine costs of biodiversity impacts, or for that matter, state or local regulation applicable to similar development of this magnitude. Further, since wind-power projects are proposed individually, cumulative impacts at regional scales are left unaddressed. Proper siting of wind energy facilities is key to reducing potential impacts and conflict. Towards this end, we have completed an ecological risk assessment, using broad-scale habitat information, as well as fine-scale data for 30 wildlife species of concern, selecting for those that research suggests would be the most susceptible to the impacts from wind-energy development.
We estimate that in total about 17 million acres of available good-to-superb wind energy potential exists within Montana. We identified at least 7.7 million acres that have a high risk to ecological values if projects were developed in those areas. We strongly suggest that high risk areas be avoided as locations for wind energy development, rather than considering mitigation approaches, as the lands identified are often critical habitat for multiple species. We also recognize that our efforts are based on breeding and resident species, and we have not considered migratory bird and bat species. Future research and monitoring is required to build our understanding of critical migratory routes, and there is also a need to develop best management practices for operations that will limit significant mortalities.
Finally, we hope this publication will spark cooperative efforts between wind energy and conservation interests, so that the promise of renewable energy can be achieved without sacrificing Montana's cultural, aesthetic, or biological heritage. This report should be viewed as a first version that will be updated and improved through on-going research and data collection. The latest information on distribution (observations, species occurrences, predictive models, range maps) can be obtained from the Montana Natural Heritage Program.