Commentary - July 10th, 2014
12:10 pm
Fri July 11, 2014

Wind, Wildlife and Weeds

Montanans have tremendous, untapped opportunity to produce clean and valuable wind energy from the windswept, wide-open spaces of eastern Montana. At the same time, growing concern about the long-term survival of sage grouse in Montana and across the West raises the potential for conflict between energy development and habitat protection.

Wind development and sage grouse sometimes appear incompatible. I’ve experienced the clash firsthand through my work in promoting renewable energy, while at the same time working for an organization dedicated to protecting and conserving wildlife. Historically, it seems to be one or the other, wind or wildlife. Wind development and sage grouse thrive on the gusty sagebrush plains so common throughout the West. But can they thrive together? The answer is “yes” – but it’s going to take a shift in thinking to ensure they both thrive.

Responsible and properly planned energy development with a priority on identifying and avoiding high impact wildlife areas is possible, and ultimately necessary if we want to save iconic species like the sage grouse while continuing to build our capacity for energy independence.

Wind energy and sage grouse can successfully co-exist. In fact, wind development may even help sage grouse. Here’s how:

Our own Senator Jon Tester and Nevada’s Senator Dean Heller have introduced legislation that would aid in the placement and permitting of wind and solar projects on public lands. The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act would provide a gradual transition to competitive leasing on public lands for wind and solar projects, ensuring affected local communities and wildlife resources are compensated for wind and solar energy development. There is no question that any new development - including renewable energy - will impact the environment.

Sage grouse are candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act – a looming possibility that underscores the importance of conserving and restoring sage grouse habitat and bolstering the overall resiliency of the species. So, it’s important to address impacts of wind-energy development before they become a problem. Wind turbines built in the wrong place or without planning and foresight can result in the loss of critical wildlife habitat, create wildlife conflicts, or – in the case of sage grouse – wipe out sensitive breeding areas.

The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act would create a better system for developing wind and solar projects on public lands. Additionally, the new system would generate royalties from wind and solar projects that could pay for public land access, habitat conservation, restoration projects and a variety of other projects benefiting wildlife, including sage grouse.

We can look to Idaho for one example of the kind of problem we could better address with this funding. Idaho faces a serious battle against cheat grass. Cheat grass is a noxious weed that, like most invasives, thrives on disturbance. It can produce more than 10,000 plants per square yard, and is highly flammable. The presence of cheat grass in a system not only knocks out native plant diversity, but increases fire intensity and often decreases intervals between fires. This leads to habitat degradation and displacement of sage grouse. Most managers see no point in trying to restore or protect an area until they can get the cheat grass and burn regime under control. This theme is a common one. What is the point of restoring areas if weeds will overtake a system and reduce the overall viability and long term health?

Another example closer to home can be found along the Hi-Line in northern Montana. Historically, this area has been prime sage grouse habitat, but decades of farming have changed the land from sage brush prairie to mono-crop grasslands. Sage grouse cannot thrive in homogeneous stands of a single plant species. They need mature sagebrush and a variety of grasses to thrive. Although not considered an invasive species, crested wheat grass is a non-native species typically used by land managers for soil stabilization and to control more-invasive species. The same characteristics that make it a good choice for range managers can create a mono-crop in the system, displacing native species and reduce overall species diversity. In many areas along the Hi-Line, the prolific seeding of crested wheatgrass has overlapped with sage grouse habitat. Wildlife managers have started small-scale sagebrush restoration projects, but thousands of acres still need to be returned to a more diverse array of native grassland species. Because crested wheat grass is a hardy plant, treatment is a multi-stage endeavor. 

Projects like these require long term management and funding, which can be hard to come by for such large-scale projects. This is where the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act comes in. If enacted, this legislation would provide long-term conservation funding for invasive weed control and restoration of sagebrush and grasslands. Projects that, right now, seem almost insurmountable. This bill will safeguard and provide future support for our wildlife and communities.

Montana’s entire congressional delegation supports the bill, and the legislation has won overwhelming bipartisan support across western states. Yet Congress seems grid locked, unable to pass even good, bipartisan bills.  The current legislative stagnation is, frankly, appalling. Even with its overwhelming support, the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act has yet to have a committee hearing.

It’s time for Congress to let forward-thinking, problem-solving, bi-partisan legislation be heard and passed. Please let your representatives know that it is time to get the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act through committee.

This is Hayley Newman with the National Wildlife Federation.