In an unusual – and somewhat controversial – move, federal wildlife officials in California are teaming up with a wind power company to breed endangered California condors in captivity to replace any that could be felled by turbine blades.
Avangrid Renewables, which operates 126 turbines in the windy Tehachapi Mountains about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, is partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to raise the captive birds at the Oregon Zoo. The proposed program, reported this week by the Los Angeles Times and pending final approval by the Wildlife Service, could begin as early as spring this year.
“Our goal is not to cause deaths,” said Amy Parsons, wildlife compliance manager for Avangrid Renewables in Portland, Oregon, in an interview Tuesday. “But we are a very proactive company and we want to take steps to minimize the risk to species from our operations.”
Although the Wildlife Service’s Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office said in a statement that there have been no documented cases of condor injuries or kills at the facility since it opened in 2012, it found condors present near wind energy projects are – and the potential for fatal collisions – would continue to increase as the wild condor population grows.
“Protection plans provide wind power companies with a mechanism to manage the impact on condors and help us regain this federally endangered species,” the office said.
The proposed $ 527,000 program, which Avangrid Renewables would pay for, involves the accidental killing of two free-flying condors and up to two eggs or chicks in the area over a period of 30 years. It would mitigate this loss by releasing six 1.5 year old condors into the wild over a three year period, a ratio based on a population viability analysis. (Under federal law, an organization that kills a condor is typically fined up to $ 200,000.)
But conservationists say the government should force wind farms to find ways to prevent the deaths rather than working out exceptions.
In comments submitted to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in February, Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting endangered species, said the company’s plan fell short . She said a more reasonable output would be a minimum of 30 condors, not six, in line with the Wildlife Service’s abatement rates for other species.
She said the program should address other threats such as ongoing habitat loss and consider the entire population of condors, not just those in Southern California.
Ms. Anderson also expressed concern that a number of other wind energy projects were seeking their own similar permits. “We remain concerned about the possible cumulative ‘ingestion’ that might be approved,” she wrote.
The California condor is the largest flying bird in North America, with wings that stretch nearly 10 feet from tip to tip and can fly up to 15,000 feet. It is listed as an endangered species in the federal law on endangered species.
According to the National Park Service, as of 2019, there were still 518 birds and 99 free-flying birds worldwide in the Southern California flock closest to Avangrid’s Manzana Wind Power Project.
Birds have been in danger since the 1950s when evolution began to invade their habitat and their eggshells became so thin from exposure to the now banned pesticide DDT that they could no longer sustain life. A captive breeding program set up by the Wildlife Service brought the species back from extinction four decades ago when only about two dozen vultures remained in the world.
Fossil fuel enthusiasts – including former President Donald J. Trump – have claimed wind turbines killed the birds en masse. Although birds that fly into the spinning blades of the turbines die in large numbers – up to 500,000 a year according to the Wildlife Service – they are far more likely to be felled by flying into buildings and cars, each accounting for hundreds of millions of the annual Bird deaths. (Cats also kill around 2.4 billion birds a year.)
Joel Merriman, the director of the Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign at the American Bird Conservancy, said in an email Monday that condors are at risk from the turbines because they spend much of their time foraging for food, and make them candidates for collision. And he found that the cumulative risk to the condors from wind turbines was greater than that from an installation.
“This is just one of several existing wind turbines in this area,” he said. “It’s hard to conclude that we’ve already taken too great a risk with one of our rarest and most iconic birds.”