In 2011, the Department of the Interior approved a plan to construct dozens of wind turbines and a high-capacity transmission line on Steens Mountain. Wind turbines, transmission lines, and associated development would have destroyed the bird’s nearby winter concentration areas and severed a unique habitat corridor that is essential to the survival of neighboring populations of Greater Sage-Grouse. The sage-grouse is an iconic desert bird that serves as an indicator of ecological health in the region; populations have declined significantly over the past several decades.
According to the three-judge panel writing for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the BLM erred in deciding not to actually survey for sage-grouse at the project site. “Having no reasonable assessment as to whether sage grouse are present at the Echanis site in winter, the BLM could not assess the Project’s impacts to them, qualitatively or quantitatively,” the panel wrote. “Most importantly, had the BLM assumed the presence of sage grouse, rather than their absence, the Echanis site would be deemed Category-1 Habitat, and the mitigation measures adopted in the [decision] would not allow development to go forward there.”
“This location was simply not the right place for wind development in Oregon’s high desert,” said Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA). “Steens Mountain is a crown jewel of Oregon’s high desert. It is home to sage-grouse and other sensitive wildlife species, and thousands of Oregonians treasure the region for its wide-open vistas and wild country.”
Steens Mountain was protected by Congress in 2000. Prized for its unique ecological and recreational values, the Steens Mountain region is one of the last undeveloped expanses of sagebrush habitat in the entire country.
ONDA and Audubon have been a leading voices in the broader discussion of how to ensure renewable energy development is compatible with wildlife and sensitive places. ONDA prepared a wind report in 2009 outlining areas with low, moderate and high levels of conflict with large-scale wind development. The report designated Steens Mountain as a high-conflict area due to both environmental and social conflicts.
“This project was left over from a time before the BLM and the state of Oregon set guidelines to encourage developers to focus on low-conflict areas and avoid places like the Steens,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland. “Today’s decision underlines what BLM should have decided in the first place and can help inform constructive conversations in the future that ensure that renewable energy projects are sited areas where they avoid these types of impacts.”
ONDA and Audubon Society of Portland submitted three separate petitions to the Department of the Interior, in 2013, 2014 and 2015, asking for the withdrawal of the Steens Wind approval. The petitions highlighted that the developer had lost all of the key regulatory approvals necessary for the project to go forward and that important new science continued to illustrate the likely impacts of the project on sage-grouse habitat and population connectivity.
ONDA and Audubon Society of Portland are represented on this case by senior attorney Mac Lacy, as well as Portland-based public interest attorney Dave Becker and Boise-based attorney Laird Lucas.
The Oregon Natural Desert Association is a Bend-based nonprofit organization that has worked to protect, defend, and restore Oregon’s high desert for almost 30 years. We work to protect stunning, ecologically significant areas in the Central Oregon Backcountry, John Day River Basin, Greater Hart-Sheldon Region, Owyhee Canyonlands and Steens Mountain Region. Learn more at ONDA.org.
Audubon Society of Portland was founded in 1902 to promote the understanding, enjoyment and protection of native birds, other wildlife and the habitats on which they depend. We work across the entire State of Oregon including marine ecosystems, forests, grasslands, deserts and urban ecosystems to protect Oregon’s wildlife and wild places. Learn more at www.audubonportland.org
- Brent Fenty, Oregon Natural Desert Association, 541-678-1974
- Bob Sallinger, Audubon Society of Portland, 503-380-9728
Founded in 1902, Portland Audubon is one of the oldest conservation organizations in the nation. It promotes the understanding, enjoyment and protection of native birds, other wildlife and their habitats through its conservation and environmental education programs, its 150-acre Nature Sanctuary and Nature Store in northwest Portland, and its Wildlife Care Center.
For more information, call 503-292-6855 or visit www.audubonportland.org.