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Final ruling reinforces protection for Greater Sage-Grouse on Steens Mountain

The long-running case over the impacts of proposed industrial-scale wind energy development on Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon was put to an end Tuesday afternoon by order of a federal court. The court vacated the Secretary of the Interior’s approval of an industrial-scale wind project that would have forever marred one of Oregon’s most cherished high desert natural areas, following on last year’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that the Bureau of Land Management failed to consider the project’s effects on Greater sage-grouse crucial winter habitat areas.

Final ruling reinforces protection for Greater Sage-Grouse on Steens Mountain

Photo by Scott Carpenter

Apr 19, 2017

Portland, OR - The long-running case over the impacts of proposed industrial-scale wind energy development on Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon was put to an end Tuesday afternoon by order of a federal court. The court vacated the Secretary of the Interior’s approval of an industrial-scale wind project that would have forever marred one of Oregon’s most cherished high desert natural areas, following on last year’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that the Bureau of Land Management failed to consider the project’s effects on Greater sage-grouse crucial winter habitat areas.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior approved a plan to construct dozens of wind turbines and a high-capacity transmission line on Steens Mountain. Such development would have severed a unique habitat corridor that is essential to the survival of neighboring populations of Greater sage-grouse and destroyed the bird’s nearby winter concentration areas. The sage-grouse is an iconic desert bird that serves as an indicator of ecological health in the region; populations have declined significantly over the past several decades across the West.

At the direction of the appeals court, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon found that the BLM’s failure to collect adequate baseline data about the Greater sage-grouse was “serious” because, as the Ninth Circuit had found, it had “materially impeded” the public’s ability to review and comment on the project and the Department of the Interior’s ability to make an informed decision.

“Wind energy is an important part of future energy generation, but Steens Mountain is simply not the right place for industrial-scale wind development,” said Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA). “Steens Mountain is the crown jewel of Oregon’s high desert. It is home to sage-grouse and other sensitive wildlife species, and Oregonians treasure the area for its wide-open vistas and wild country. I am grateful to bring this nearly decade-long effort to a close and ensure that Steens is kept intact for current and future generations.”

The area proposed for development is on Steens Mountain, which was protected by Congress in 2000. ONDA and the Audubon Society of Portland have been leading voices in the broader discussion of how to ensure renewable energy development is compatible with wildlife and sensitive places. ONDA prepared a wind report in 2009 outlining areas in Oregon’s high desert with low, moderate and high levels of conflict with large-scale wind development. The report identified Steens Mountain as a high-conflict area due to both environmental and social conflicts. 

“Steens Mountain never should have been considered for industrial wind development and this outcome speaks to the importance of carefully considering the impacts of energy development  on wildlife and other natural resources values,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland.” “We strongly support the transition to renewable energy sources but it needs to be done in a responsible manner.”

ONDA and the Audubon Society of Portland submitted three separate petitions to the Department of the Interior, in 2013, 2014 and 2015, asking for the withdrawal of the Steens wind approval. The petitions highlighted that the developer had lost all of the key regulatory approvals necessary for the project to go forward and that important new science continued to illustrate the likely impacts of the project on sage-grouse habitat and population connectivity.  

ONDA and Audubon Society of Portland are represented on this case by ONDA Senior Attorney Mac Lacy, assisted by Portland-based public interest attorney Dave Becker and Boise-based attorney Laird Lucas. 

The Oregon Natural Desert Association is a Bend-based nonprofit organization that has worked to protect, defend, and restore Oregon’s high desert for 30 years. We work to protect stunning, ecologically significant areas in the Central Oregon Backcountry, John Day River Basin, Greater Hart-Sheldon Region, Owyhee Canyonlands and Steens Mountain Region. Learn more at ONDA.org.

Audubon Society of Portland was founded in 1902 to promote the understanding, enjoyment and protection of native birds, other wildlife and the habitats on which they depend. We work across the entire state of Oregon including marine ecosystems, forests, grasslands, deserts and urban ecosystems to protect Oregon’s wildlife and wild places. Learn more at www.audubonportland.org. 

 

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