On March 23, 2012, the Department of the Interior released guidelines designed to help wind energy project developers avoid and minimize impacts of land-based wind projects on wildlife and habitat. These voluntary guidelines were developed to encourage “smart siting, design, and operation” of wind energy projects based on a scientific process for addressing wildlife conservation concerns at all stages of development. The guidelines are also intended to promote effective communication among wind energy developers and local, state, and federal agencies. When used with appropriate regulatory tools, the guidelines are intended to facilitate a practical approach for conserving species of concern. The new land-based wind energy guidelines were developed through a joint effort by the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee. The final guidelines were released after a five year-year process that included approximately 30,000 submitted comments.
The final guidelines rely on a “tiered approach” to assessing potential adverse effects to species of concern and their habitats. Each tier involves collecting information in increasing detail and quantifying the potential significant adverse impacts on wildlife of proposed wind energy projects. These risks are evaluated and used to guide siting, construction, and operation decisions. The Fish and Wildlife Service indicates that many distributed or community facilities will need to proceed only through the initial tiers; not every project will be required to progress through all stages. This approach is intended to allow efficient use of both developer and wildlife agency resources. The five tiers for identifying and minimizing impacts to species of special concern and their habitat are as follows:
- Tier 1: Developers complete a preliminary site evaluation. This can help developers identify broad geographic areas of high sensitivity. This stage is intended to offer early guidance about sensitivity of potential sites within a larger landscape context.
- Tier 2: Developers complete a site-specific characterization. This stage should include communication with relevant agencies and site-specific data gathering, such as site visits by a wildlife biologist.
- Tier 3: Fields studies are conducted to document site wildlife and habitat and predict potential impacts attributable to the project. These studies provide pre-construction information that can be used to design appropriate mitigation measures or monitoring studies, among other tools for minimizing potential significant adverse impacts.
- Tier 4: Developers implement post-construction studies to estimate actual project impacts. Fatality studies play an important role for data collection at the tier 4 stage.
- Tier 5: In the event observed fatalities exceed predictions in earlier tiers, if estimated project impacts could lead to local population declines, or mitigation measures were ineffective, tier 5 studies may be required. The Service expects that tier 5 studies will be complex and time-consuming. Therefore, the Service anticipates this tiered approach should direct projects away from sites where tier 5 studies would be necessary.
The guidelines will also play an important role in helping developers identify any permits that might be needed to ensure compliance with federal wildlife laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Voluntary compliance with these guidelines does not provide immunity to any liability for violation of these laws; however, if a violation occurs, the Fish and Wildlife Service will consider a developer’s documented efforts to communicate with the Service and adhere to these guidelines.
A final version of the guidelines are available here: http://www.fws.gov/windenergy/docs/WEG_final.pdf