A western solar boom threatens the home of wildlife in the range

It wasn’t long after Wyoming’s first large-scale solar project came online in 2019 that the antelopes became known.

More than 1,000 thistles – “American antelopes” – ran down Highway 372 in Wyoming that winter, to the horror of drivers and biologists alike. The animals would normally migrate over public lands, but with the 700-acre Sweetwater Solar Farm blocking their path, they took the highway.

State officials are now working to make sure that does not happen again as energy developers eye large swaths of land for utility-scale solar projects. Angie Bruce, deputy director of the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game, said that while the state promotes energy development, it also prioritizes “making sure our wildlife thrives because we value it so much here.”

“Wyoming is one of the few states that still has large landscapes intact from the original ecosystems that are great for supporting wildlife populations,” she said. “There can be conflicts.”

newly study It sheds light on how these conflicts arise. The study published in the journal Frontiers in ecology and environmentused GPS collars on adult teeth and measured their movements before and after Sweetwater was built.

Almost 70 percent of the horns used the planned site and had to change their migration. Among the migrating animals, 86 percent used the site and were pushed onto a new path. Up to 12 percent of the species’ mean summer range and 10 percent of its mean winter range have been lost.

Energy developers should always be aware of the impacts of wildlife, said Hall Sawyer, a researcher with Western Ecosystems Technology and lead author of the study, but solar farms present a particular challenge. Safety rules require that large solar installations be surrounded by a fence at least 2 meters (about 6 feet) high.

“It’s very simple, yet often overlooked, that these fences are impermeable to large animals and large mammals,” Sawyer said in an interview. “This habitat has just gone.”

The problem can also affect elk, deer, and other large mammals.

Sawyer emphasized that his study is not against solar energy. Instead, he said, the findings should prompt solar developers to think more creatively about positioning and site design decisions. He said solar projects could be divided, with lanes between them, or they could be moved to allow for wide migration areas. Sawyer said the problem is lack of data to develop best practices.

“Because of how spread out our large game collections are, it would be very common for these projects to overlap their habitat,” Sawyer said. “The next step should be to do some experimentation, so maybe, in a couple of years, we can figure out how to create the lowest-impact sites.”

“complete removal of habitat”

Ministry of Energy Study the future of solar energy Solar deployment is expected to reach 1,600 gigawatts of AC by 2050 to achieve a carbon-neutral grid, which will require the deployment of facilities at four times the current rate between 2025 and 2030.

The Bureau of Land Management has stepped up approvals for more than 29 gigawatts of solar power on federal lands in western states, according to one agency. Fact statementAs part of an expected push to boost solar energy installation.

However, this push has also created concerns about positioning, especially since projects can quickly go off the drawing board.

“It’s kind of a shock compared to the level of impact solar installations have with other generation facilities,” said John Holst, senior wildlife and energy consultant with Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Even wind, as another renewable energy opportunity, allows some wildlife movement. Solar has these high-fencing facilities; vegetation is removed. Some of them are leveled and gravel. You’re talking about complete removal of habitat.”

There were once believed to be thousands of forks in the area around Yellowstone National Park, according to a recent report. Report of the park staff.

Hunting, poaching, grassland eradication, and a series of harsh winters reduced these numbers to the hundreds in the 20th century; In 1995, the census found only 235 forks in the Yellowstone area.

Revitalizing this group, the researchers write, will require restoring migration paths and giving the animals more room to roam. Animals make large seasonal movements to forage for food and escape from predators; Animals around Yellowstone have been known to travel 50 miles in the fall to find open plains, retreating to the higher plains in the winter and then traveling to the higher grasslands within the park in the spring.

However, encroaching development and highway construction has tightened up its habitat. a 2018 request The Department of the Interior has directed federal agencies to work with states to help restore habitat for large mammals, especially around highways and across developments.

That doesn’t mean solar projects aren’t beginning in traditional pronghorn habitats, said Justin Lewica, Wyoming director of energy programs at the Nature Conservancy. He said developers and government regulators need to be aware of the potential risks of any solar site and try to address them in advance.

“The Nature Conservancy understands our society’s need to decarbonize. We want to achieve our net zero goals by 2050,” said Loyka. “This means we must link our climate change goals with our concerns about the impact of new energy development. It means stimulating things that are not always taken into account when developing new projects.”

We are still learning

Holst, who previously worked at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said solar project approval varies across western states, a “patchwork” that often leaves wildlife agencies on the sidelines.

In Colorado, he said, state wildlife officials can be required to consult on projects over a certain size but have no veto power.

Large solar farms don’t just disable the big animals. Concerns range from fragile ecosystems to bird species such as the great grouse.

Arizona regulators have worked with environmentalists to avoid placing new renewable projects in the bats’ migration corridors, while other states have tried to empower wildlife experts. This does not mean that their advice is taken. In fact, Wyoming officials raised objections to Sweetwater’s project before it was installed.

“It’s commonplace that state wildlife agencies don’t have any legislative-driven regulatory power,” Holst said, noting that Colorado legislation gives wildlife agencies veto power over oil and gas project sites. “The first step should be for every wildlife agency in the state to get an opportunity for input, not after the event has occurred, but while they are reflecting on these developments.”

This is the role Wyoming Game and Fish are trying to play. Bruce said her department is trying to work with the project’s developers in the planning phase so they can find a new site or redesign the fence to better accommodate the species.

“These are things we’re still learning and figuring out. That’s why one of our other recommendations is pre- and post-species monitoring,” said Bruce. “We’re really trying to focus on what we think the impacts might be, and that’s data that we can use in future projects. “

Data collection is particularly important because so little is known; It is still not clear how many sidewalk forks will give a fence, for example.

Changing plans, she said, could add costs and time to solar projects, a particular challenge during the current supply chain crisis that is leaving developers desperate to get any panels off the ground.

“We try to think of this as a way to incentivize sustainable development rather than penalize developers,” said Bruce. “We are preparing to continue working with solar energy, and our track record shows that we take this very seriously in support of the energy sector.”

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