USFWS Pinnacle 93009 Letter USWF

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<p>United States Department of the4iFISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE " West Virginia Field Office 694 Beverly Pike Elkins, West Virginia 26241 September 30, 2009</p> <p>Mr. Paul Kerlinger Curry &amp; Kerlinger, LLC Post Office Box 453 Cape May, New Jersey 08212 Mr. Mike Sponsler BHE Environmental 5300 E. Main Street, Suite 101 Columbus, Ohio 43213-2580 Re: Comments on Wildlife Studies for the Pinnacle Wind Power Project, Mineral County, West Virginia, (PSC Case # 09-0360-E-CS)</p> <p>Dear Mr. Kerlinger and Mr. Sponsler: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has reviewed the wildlife risk assessments conducted in support of the proposed Pinnacle Wind Power Project (Pinnacle) near the town of Keyser in Mineral County, West Virginia. The proposed wind facility will consist of twentythree (23) turbines (418-feet or 1,379-meters tall at the top of rotor-swept area) aligned along the ridge of Green Mountain, a section of the Allegheny Front. The elevation of the project area varies from 2,514 to 2,851 feet (766 to 869 meters) above mean sea level. The proposed project includes construction of 0.75 mile (1.2 kilometers) of transmission line. Between 102 to 245 acres (41 to 99 hectares) of land will be cleared of vegetation for construction of the turbine towers, transmission lines, and other infrastructure. Following construction, most of these cleared areas will be allowed to regenerate. The comments we provide below pertain to the Habitat Characterization and Assessment of Rare, Threatened, and Endangered Species for the Pinnacle Wind Farm (BHE Environmental 2009a); the Avian Risk Assessment for the Pinnacle Wind Power Project (Kerlinger 2009); and the Bat Risk Assessment: Pinnacle Wind Farm (BHE Environmental 2009b). We submit these comments and recommendations pursuant to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA), as amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA) (16 U.S.C. 668 et seq.), and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) (16 U.S.C. 703 et seq.).</p> <p>Mr. Paul Kerlinger and Mr. Mike Sponsler September 30, 2009</p> <p>2</p> <p>The Service identified several species and groups that may be impacted by the construction and operation of the Pinnacle wind power facility in a letter to Ms. Becky Braeutigam dated April 13, 2007. The letter noted that the Federally-listed endangered Indiana bat, the bald eagle, migratory birds (including bald and golden eagles), and unlisted migratory bats may be affected either directly or indirectly by activities associated with the construction and operation of the facility, including: behavioral effects, habitat removal and fragmentation, increased human activity, maintenance of rights-of-way and roads, and collisions with turbine blades, among others. The habitat characterization and assessment and the avian and bat risk assessments for the proposed Pinnacle Wind power project describe the potential for impacts to these identified species using the survey information, data from other wind power facilities, and literature reviews. The Pinnacle risk assessments are based on a weight-of-evidence approach using relative measures (low, medium, and high) to determine the level of impact a particular stressor (i.e., construction activities, collision) will have on a species or group. This is an acceptable approach that has been used by the Service and other Federal agencies to describe risk. As further described below, we disagree, however, with conclusions drawn from these analyses. Habitat Characterization and Assessment The habitat characterization and assessment for rare and Federally-listed species on the Pinnacle study area described the habitat of the endangered Indiana bat on site as "minimal" based on previous and ongoing disturbances on site and a minimal amount of preferred habitat in the turbine corridor (i.e. forested riparian areas and caves). However, the executive summary of this report noted that in the summer of 2008, a substantial portion of the 245-acre (98-hectare). project area was clear-cut. The area of timber cut was not stated but we assume it was on the order of roughly 62 acres (25 hectares) during the time of year when bats were active. [The report refers to a total 102-acre (41-hectare) limit of disturbance for the project, and refers to 40 acres (16 hectares) of young timber remaining on site. By subtraction, one can infer that roughly 62 acres (25 hectares) were cut.] We cannot tell from the scant details in the habitat characterization report, but it is possible that the ridgeline where the project is to be located originally contained mature trees which may have . provided higher levels of suitable roosting and foraging habitat for Indiana bats prior to the clear-cutting. The bat risk assessment for Pinnacle (BHE 2009b, page 9) describes the ridgetop of the Pinnacle project area as relatively mature forest (presumably prior to clear-cutting by the landowner). The bat risk assessment also indicates that the proposed Pinnacle project prior to clear-cutting was expected to remove 0.04 percent of the forest in the county; and is therefore not a significant loss (BHE 2009b, p. 3). However, the proper context for comparison is not the entire county but the ridgeline on which the Pinnacle project is proposed to be constructed. At a local level, the forest loss from Pinnacle is cumulative to the clear-cutting by the landowner which is expected to remove one-half to two-thirds of the trees from the ridge (BHE 2009b, page 3). Because this endangered species uses mature trees for roosting, and uses forested habitat to travel to foraging areas (Butchkoski 2007), clearing of large areas of forested habitat could disrupt potential roost sites and travel corridors for this species. Remaining trees greater than a 5-inch (12.8-centimeter) diameter-at-breast height should only be cut during the time of year</p> <p>Mr. Paul Kerlinger and Mr. Mike Sponsler September 30, 2009 when bats are in hibernation (November 15 through March 31). To compensate for forest clearing and habitat fragmentation on-site, we recommend protecting intact mature forest habitat off-site. Likewise, the habitat characterization report noted (post-clearcut) the lack of large trees suitable for nesting by eagles. These forested impacts should be clarified and appropriately avoided, minimized, and mitigated. At a minimum, we recommend that Pinnacle commit to implementing the recommendations on page 10 of the Avian Risk Assessment (Kerlinger 2009) regarding seasonal clearing restrictions for nesting birds, habitat restoration, and development of a forest management plan.</p> <p>3</p> <p>The habitat characterization and assessment for Pinnacle also noted the high , likelihood of occurrence of several rare species that use talus and rock outcrops: small-footed bat, Allegheny woodrat, eastern spotted skunk, and timber rattlesnake. Timber rattlesnakes were observed in abundance on site yet the report concluded a minimal likelihood the Pinnacle project will adversely affect rare reptiles. To avoid contributing to the need to list additional species under the Federal Endangered Species Act, we recommend avoiding impacts to talus and rocky outcrop areas that may be used as suitable habitat by small-footed bats and other sensitive species. Avian Risk Assessment Night Migrating Birds No on-site observations of passage rate, flight altitude, or flight direction were used to assess risks to nocturnally migrating birds at the proposed Pinnacle site. The collision risk to night migrants was assessed by reviewing previous studies conducted at other locations in the eastern United States. The studies cited as most relevant to assessing collision risk at the Pinnacle site are of two different types: radar studies (for estimating numbers, altitudes, and directions) and carcass searches (for estimating collision mortality). Currently, there are no available studies that directly correlate radar observations with observed mortality at ridgeline locations. Data from 23 wind facility post-construction avian mortality studies are presented to assess night migrant collision potential at the proposed Pinnacle site. Only four of these studies (Nicholson 2001, 2002; Kerns and Kerlinger 2004; Fiedler et al. 2007; Young et al. 2009a) were conducted at ridge sites which are similar to the proposed Pinnacle location. Results of these four carcass search investigations indicate that approximately two to seven night migrants/turbine/year are killed at eastern ridge top wind projects. Of the 21 radar studies cited, only three (Mabee et al. 2006; Woodlot Alternatives, Inc 2005; and "Allegheny Ridge" unknown citation) were conducted at. ridge sites along the Allegheny Front and are potentially useful for estimating passage rate, flight altitude, and flight direction of night migrants at the Pinnacle site. Mean passage rates reported in these studies varied from 187 to 493 targets/kilometer/hour. Altitude observations referenced in the Pinnacle risk assessment indicate that night migrants generally flew above the maximum height of industrial wind turbines, with between 7 and 15 percent on average observed flying within the rotor-swept zone (below 410 feet or 1,353 meters). However, Stantec Consulting (2008a) reported that on some</p> <p>Mr. Paul Kerlinger and Mr. Mike Sponsler September 30, 2009 nights as many as 53 percent of night migrating birds crossing a nearby Allegheny Front ridge flew below the 410-foot (1,353-meter) level. If similar conditions occur at the Pinnacle site, the presence of industrial-scale wind turbines may present a significant collision risk to night migrants during peak migration and/or inclement weather conditions. Eagles We also are concerned about the risk of collision mortality to golden and bald eagles using the air space over the proposed Pinnacle wind power project. Results of the "Spring and Fall Raptor Migration Studies" contained in the Avian Risk Assessment for the Pinnacle Wind Power Project (Pinnacle Risk Assessment) confirm that the proposed project site lies in a major migratory pathway for the relatively small eastern population of golden eagles (Kerlinger 2009). The author notes that "Fall Golden Eagle migration at Pinnacle is significant and comparable in volume to that registered at some of the hawk watch sites that are considered the most important inland in eastern North America" (Kerlinger 2009). The fall 2007 observation period at the proposed Pinnacle site was conducted between September 1 and December 15 and totaled 87 observation days. During this period, 99 golden eagles and 57 bald eagles were observed passing through the project area. The spring 2008 observation period occurred between March 2 and April 29 and totaled 45 observation days. During this period, 102 golden eagles and 37 bald eagles were observed passing the project area. The authors noted that a high percentage of these birds flew along the ridge where the turbines are proposed and at heights corresponding to the rotor-swept area. Little research has been published concerning the wind turbine collision risk of eagles migrating along linear ridge systems. Three wind facility post-construction avian mortality studies (Kerns and Kerlinger 2004; Fiedler et al. 2007; Young et al. 2009a) are cited in the Pinnacle Avian Risk Assessment as evidence of low collision risk for migrating eagles along this linear Appalachian ridge. However, because of limitations in the methodologies employed or project location (discussed below), reliance on these studies may lead to a significant underestimate of risk to migrating eagles at the proposed Pinnacle facility. In 2003, Kerns and Kerlinger (2004) studied bird collisions and associated bird mortality at a 44turbine wind energy facility in Tucker County, West Virginia, approximately 26 miles (42 kilometers) southwest of the proposed Pinnacle site. Of the 13 rounds of carcass searches conducted during the fall migration period, only two occurred during November, the peak month for golden eagle migration (Kerlinger 2009; HMANA 2008). Also, during these two rounds of searches (November 7 and 9 and November 14, 20-22), multi-day gaps in the field effort increased the likelihood that any carcasses would be scavenged before discovery. Of the eight rounds of carcass searches conducted in the spring, none were conducted in March, the peak month for spring golden eagle migration (Kerlinger 2009; HMANA 2008). No eagle carcasses where found during these searches, but because of the sampling limitations noted above, the conclusion that collision risk is low is not well supported. From April 5 to December 20, 2005, Fiedler et al. (2007) conducted weekly carcass searches at. an 18-turbine facility in Anderson County, Tennessee (approximately 370 miles or 595 kilometers southwest of the Pinnacle site). Because this facility is located in the southern portion</p> <p>Mr. Paul Kerlinger and Mr. Mike Sponsler September 30, 2009 of the eastern golden eagle migratory range and no eagle observation or passage rate data were presented or could be located, the relevance of this study to the proposed Pinnacle project is questionable to the proposed Pinnacle project. The observed lack of eagle mortality at the Tennessee site may simply be due to eagles not migrating past this site, or at least not in the high numbers observed at more northern locations along the Allegheny ridge system. Without more information, this study is of little use for accurately assessing collision risk at the proposed Pinnacle facility. Young, et al. (2009a) monitored avian mortality at an 82-turbine facility in Grant County, West Virginia (approximately 10 miles or 16 kilometers south-southwest of the Pinnacle site) from July 18 to October 17, 2008, and did not report any eagle fatalities. Again, golden eagle migration through this area does not begin until late October, with the largest number of birds moving through in November (Kerlinger 2009; HMANA 2008). Because the study was conducted when few, if any, migrating golden eagles would be exposed to the wind turbines, the finding of no mortality is not particularly useful for assessing risk to this species at the proposed Pinnacle facility. Regardless of these findings, the authors of the Pinnacle study conclude that golden and bald eagles may be at risk at the Pinnacle site and that "some level of mortality may occur". Considering that bald and golden eagle numbers are increasing, we believe the site poses a high risk of mortality to eagles over the anticipated long operational life of the project (20+ years). The author of the Pinnacle Avian Risk Assessment also evaluated potential habitat loss caused by construction of the proposed project. He concluded the relative degree of habitat loss was a low risk because no eagle nests were observed during surveys of the project area. However, a bald eagle nest was documented within 4.7 miles (8 kilometers) of the project area in 2007, and many more ne...</p>