Wind Farm Called Threat to Condors

     BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) - California illegally approved a giant wind farm in the Tehachapi Mountains that will kill California condors and golden eagles, environmentalists claim in Kern County Court.
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     Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and Center for Biological Diversity claim the Department of Fish and Game violated its own regulations by issuing an "incidental take" permit to the co-defendant developer, North Sky Energy. The environmentalists also sued the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
     The wind farm at issue includes the North Sky River and Jawbone Wind energy projects, which stretch across a combined 13,353 acres of windy desert roughly 200 miles north of Los Angeles. When completed, 116 turbines will produce up to 300 megawatts of clean energy, according to the complaint.
     The lawsuit highlights conflicting goals among environmentalists.
     "In general, petitioners support the development of wind and solar energy as a critical component of efforts to curtain the proliferation of greenhouse gases (GHG)," the complaint states. "Such efforts are vitally needed in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change and to assist California in meeting its GHG emission reduction goals."
     But the groups say the state issued North Sky an incidental take permit and approved a streambed alteration "without considering the impacts of the operation of the project on protected avian species, the majestic golden eagle and the extremely rare California condor and imperiled willow flycatchers, as well as impacts to an important avian migratory corridor."
     The project area, "at the base of the Tehachapi and Piute mountain ranges within the southern Sierra Nevada mountains, west of the Fremont Valley in the Western Mojave Desert ... is within the unofficial boundaries of the Tehachapi Wind Resource area," the complaint states.
     The Pacific Ocean sucks wind from the Mojave Desert across Jawbone Canyon, which is popular with hang gliders, who soar above the rolling hills and agricultural preserves.
     Some of the project land is public, owned by the Bureau of Land Management. The privately held land belongs to North Sky River Landholdings, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, which owns around 100 wind farms throughout the state.
     The Kern County Board of Supervisors approved the Jawbone project and certified its environmental impact report in September 2011.
     But in the complaint, the Sierra Club and its co-plaintiffs claim the county's certification of the report violated the California Environmental Quality Act.
     They claim that the environmental impact report did not address the many bird and bat deaths the wind turbines will cause. Such deaths are called "incidental take." The groups also object to the streambed alteration agreement that will allow North Sky to build 39 unpaved stream crossings.
     The Department of Fish and Game claims on its website that it issues incidental take permits and streambed alteration agreements only for projects that protect and conserve plant and wildlife species in the project area. It claims it will not issue a permit to a project that will threaten endangered species.
     The environmentalists claim Fish and Game violated its own regulations and ignored the foreseeable deaths of golden eagles and condors.
     "Fish and Game Code Section 3511 provides that, except for limited exceptions not applicable here, 'fully protected birds or parts thereof may not be taken or possessed at anytime.' Two such fully protected bird species, the California condor and the golden eagle are directly affected by the project," the complaint states.
     "The risk to golden eagles is high and take is highly likely. The likelihood of take of the California condor is difficult to assess but any take of the species would have a significant impact on the survival and recovery of the species given the very low population and recent genetic bottleneck."
     California condors, threatened with extinction as recently as the late 1980s, have recovered from a population of 22 to about 170 today, thanks to the Fish and Game's catch-and-release program and support from groups such as the plaintiffs.
     "By authorizing permits for the project without addressing the likelihood that the project would cause unlawful take on two fully protected bird species, CDFG failed to act in the manner required by law and prejudicially abused its discretion," the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs seek writ of mandate ordering Fish and Game to revoke its take permit and streambed alteration agreement. They want construction to stop until the defendants comply with the Endangered Species Act.
     Plaintiffs' lead counsel is Babak Naficy of San Luis Obispo.