Wind energy development is increasing in the United States. Much of the highest wind energy potential in the country occurs in the Great Plains region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS, or Service) Regions 2 and 6, which include the U.S. portion of the endangered Aransas-Wood Buffalo Population (AWBP) whooping crane migration corridor in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Ongoing and anticipated development of wind resources in the migration corridor of the AWBP is unprecedented and could place thousands more wind turbines, associated transmission lines, and other appurtenances in the Central Flyway path of the species in the coming decade.
The whooping crane is a species with a low reproductive rate and limited genetic material derived from the 15 whooping cranes that remained in the 1940s. Only 247 individuals occur in the current AWBP, the only wild self-sustaining population of the species. Although the species numbers are slowly increasing, they are far below the level required for recovery. A population viability analysis done in 2004 found that an additional 3% mortality, i.e., less than 8 individuals annually, would cause the species to undergo a decline, and preclude recovery.
Pursuant to Section 9 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it is unlawful for any person to take any federally-listed threatened or endangered fish or wildlife species, without special exemption. The ESA defines take as to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or to attempt to engage in any such conduct. Harm is further defined by USFWS to include significant habitat modification or degradation that results in death or injury to listed species by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding, or sheltering (50 CFR 17.3). The risk of lethal take to whooping cranes from wind turbines is not known at this time, but it is acknowledged that the highest source of mortality to fledged cranes is from striking power lines. The best available information also indicates that whooping cranes may avoid stopover habitat that is developed with wind energy appurtenances, particularly turbines. This avoidance may deny them the use of important habitat, and thus may result in take in the form of harm by significant habitat modification.
As more wind energy facilities are built, including turbines, transmission lines, power stations, and roads, it is incumbent on the industry, Federal action agencies, and USFWS to provide the highest level of protection possible to whooping cranes, and to closely monitor the number of these birds killed and deterred from using preferred stopover locations. Wind energy companies with planned projects in the Great Plains should assess impacts, and if found likely to result in take of whooping cranes, projects without a Federal nexus should seek ESA compliance by applying for an incidental take permit through the section 10 permitting process. For projects with a Federal nexus, the Federal action agency would need to consult with the USFWS through the ESA Section 7 process for projects that may affect whooping cranes and must ensure that their activities will not jeopardize the continued existence of the species of adversely modify designated critical habitat.
Endangered Species Act compliance with USFWS on a project-by-project basis presents several problems: this approach does not provide for an efficient landscape-level analysis of impacts; it represents significant delays to the industry as projects are reviewed one-at-a-time by local Ecological Services field offices; it results in first-come first-served permitting without regard to a cohesive development strategy; and the cumulative amount of take anticipated would likely very quickly approach the maximum take that can be sustained by the population, leaving future projects with no prospects of receiving protection under Section 9 of the ESA. We believe that a more efficient approach, available through the habitat conservation planning process outlined in Section 10 of the ESA, is for the Service and industry to look collectively across the landscape at all existing, proposed, and reasonably foreseeable wind energy development, put in place adequate conservation measures, assess the cumulative impacts, and allocate take coverage that will not preclude recovery of the species. Section 10(a)(2)(A) of the ESA requires an applicant for an incidental take permit to submit a “conservation plan” that specifies, among other things, the impacts that are likely to result from the taking and the measures the permit applicant will undertake to minimize and mitigate such impacts. Conservation plans under the ESA have come to be known as “habitat conservation plans (HCP).” The HCP approach would help protect whooping cranes and would reduce the regulatory burden for both the wind industry and USFWS. This issue paper, prepared by USFWS Regions 2 and 6, provides a discussion of the status of the species, the threats posed by wind energy development, a description of options, and a recommendation to the industry to support the HCP approach.