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Wind power turbines in Altamont Pass threaten protected birds

Scores of golden eagles have been killed after striking the thousands of wind turbines in the Bay Area, raising questions about California's move toward alternative power.

June 06, 2011|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

And while "there's quite a bit of growth to come in wind energy development, it won't be popping up everywhere," said attorney Allan Marks, who specializes in the development of renewable energy projects. "That is because you can only build these machines where the wind is blowing. So a lot of the new development will be replacing old facilities in areas such as Cabazon, the Tehachapi Mountains and Altamont Pass."

Nonetheless, the generating facilities will continue to threaten federally protected species such as eagles and California condors, a successfully recovered species that is expanding its range into existing and proposed wind farms in Kern and Fresno counties.

NextEra Energy's proposed North Sky River Project calls for 102 wind turbines across 12,582 acres on the east flank of the Piute Mountains, about 17 miles northeast of the Tehachapis. A risk assessment of that project warned that condors spend considerable time soaring within the potential rotor-swept heights of modern wind turbines, which are more than 200 feet tall. It also pointed out that condor roosts are as close as 25 miles away.

"We taxpayers have spent millions of dollars saving the California condor from extinction," said Gary George, spokesman for Audubon California. "How's the public going to feel about wind energy if a condor hits the turbines?"

In the meantime, raptors such as golden eagles, American kestrels, red-tail hawks and prairie falcons continue to compete with wind turbines for their share of the winds blowing from the southwest through the Altamont Pass.

Golden eagles weigh about 14 pounds, stand up to 40 inches tall and are equipped with large hooked bills and ice-pick talons. Their flight behavior and size make it difficult for them to maneuver through forests of wind turbine towers, especially when distracted by the sight of prey animals such as ground squirrels and rabbits.

"The eagles usually die of blunt-force trauma injuries," Bell said. "Once, I discovered a wounded golden eagle hobbling through tall grass, about a quarter mile from the turbine blades that had clipped its flight feathers."

Video: Golden Eagles at Altamont Pass

As he spoke, an adult male golden eagle glided a few yards above the contours of Buena Vista's sloped grasslands, prowling for prey. It floated up and over a rise, narrowly evading turbine blades as it followed the tantalizing sight of a ground squirrel scurrying through the brush.

Bell sighed with relief. "A wind farm owner once told me that if there were no witnesses, it would be impossible to prove a bird had been killed by a wind turbine blade," he said. "My response was this: If you see a golden eagle sliced in half in a wind farm, what other explanation is there?"

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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