RAWLINS, Wyo. -- The road to what will be the nation's most powerful wind farm is so muddy, it causes a Ford F-250 heavy-duty pickup to slide helplessly.
Garry Miller, a vice president with Power Company of Wyoming LLC, has made this drive south to the Overland Trail Ranch many times. On a recent afternoon, he stepped out onto the soggy road near Miller Hill, which rises hundreds of feet above the sagebrush and greasewood on the valley floor.
"This is it. This is where the turbines will go," Miller said, gesturing from the top of the hill down across the valley, tracking the path of the Pacific winds that sweep with great force across the 320,000-acre cattle ranch.
Power Company of Wyoming plans to string 157 wind turbines here as part of the much larger Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project. Once completed in the coming decade, it will number 1,000 turbines and rank as the largest onshore wind farm in North American, if not the world.
The project will be capable of producing 3,000 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power more than 1 million homes and businesses.
"This is a legacy project," Miller said. "We're pushing the boundaries of renewable energy."
But there's a catch: The proposed project must share the landscape with the imperiled greater sage grouse.
Scientists say Western sage grouse populations have plummeted from as many as 16 million birds in the early 19th century as few as 200,000 today. The bird's leading threats are habitat destruction and fragmentation from residential growth, energy development, wildfires, invasive species and poorly managed livestock grazing.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is evaluating the bird and must decide whether to propose listing it for protection under the Endangered Species Act by Sept. 30. The possibility of an ESA listing has sparked an unprecedented effort among federal and state regulators, local governments, and private landowners to protect and restore what's left of the bird's habitat across its 11-state Western range.
While the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project will represent a high-water mark for wind power development, the project's backers have set the equally ambitious goal of making it a national model for how to develop large-scale projects in the heart of grouse country.
PCW hired Broomfield, Colo.-based SWCA Environmental Consultants and has partnered with researchers at the University of Missouri on a groundbreaking research project designed to answer once and for all how wind power development may alter the behavior of sage grouse.
Regulators have mostly assumed that grouse will avoid wind turbines just as they tend to avoid other areas with tall structures, an instinctual trait attributed to the bird's desire to avoid raptors and other predators that perch atop tall structures on the otherwise open landscape. Federal sage grouse plans unveiled last month by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell propose excluding millions of acres of wind development in primary grouse habitat, and significantly limiting it in less important general grouse habitat.
"There's a huge lag in the research literature on sage grouse," said Tim Griffiths, the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Sage Grouse Initiative coordinator.
But researchers at SWCA Environmental Consultants for the past five years have placed satellite-tracking devices, about the size and width of an index finger, on the backs of roughly 370 hens and male grouse. The GPS "backpacks," as the researchers call them, have generated more than 500,000 data points of information showing in detail exactly where the grouse move or fly on the cattle ranch, what breeding sites they use and when, and locations where hens nest and rear their chicks.
PCW has used the information to "microsite" the hundreds of wind turbines -- some as tall as 279 feet -- along with roads and other infrastructure associated with construction of the first 500-turbine phase of the project to avoid or minimize impacts to grouse habitat.
The data have also allowed researchers to determine where to focus conservation efforts, as well as to calculate which grouse mitigation measures work best on the Overland Trail Ranch, which is owned by PCW's parent company, Anschutz Corp., and is dotted with square-mile patches of federal land.
The Bureau of Land Management in 2012 formally approved the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project through a record of decision that required additional environmental assessments (EAs) to be conducted, including one on the siting of the actual turbines. BLM later this month is expected to release that EA approving the turbine locations for the first phase of the project.
The scale of the PCW effort to site the project is as unique as the size of the project itself, said Jim Lyons, the Interior Department's deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management overseeing the agency's sage grouse conservation efforts. It also underscores how the wind power industry has embraced the Obama administration's smart-from-the-start campaign to site renewables projects, he said.
"I think it's an important precedent from the standpoint of how do we move forward to try to minimize [wildlife] conflicts to more effectively site projects," Lyons said. "It is certainly a landscape approach, working in advance to identify potential conflicts, trying to avoid and minimize those conflicts. That is conceptually what we want to do as we move forward."
Changes to the neighborhood
PCW's consultants and the University of Missouri scientists, led by Joshua Millspaugh, a well-respected quantitative ecologist, have collected five years of detailed pre-construction data and will continue researching for five years after the first 500-turbine phase is placed into operation in 2020.
This will be the first wind project to establish base-line sage grouse conditions prior to construction, allowing researchers to measure the exact changes in behavior that may result from the project.
"There are a lot of data gaps that need to be filled, and I think this program is going to fill in a lot of those gaps and it's going to answer a lot of questions," said Jon Kehmeier, SWCA's principal ecologist. "After the project's built, do we see the same use patterns, or do we see that they start to use the landscape differently? How does the neighborhood change, so to speak."
Because sage grouse in the project area typically migrate outside the ranch boundaries, the research will not be limited to the actual 219,707-acre wind project site but will encompass the 750,000-acre surrounding region near large state-designated core sage grouse areas west, south and east of the site.
It is one of two active projects funded with help from grants awarded through the Sage-Grouse Research Collaborative that includes money from BLM, the Energy Department, and Fish and Wildlife. PCW also has already spent $3 million on the grouse study.
"The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre study is a great design," said Chad LeBeau, a research biologist with Western Ecosystems Technology in nearby Laramie, Wyo. "This [study] will be utilized by a lot of wind farms."
LeBeau is leading the other study funded by the Sage-Grouse Research Collaborative. His project is analyzing impacts to grouse behavior at PacifiCorp's 118 MW Seven Mile Hill Wind Energy Facility east of the Overland Trail Ranch.
LeBeau and his team published a peer-reviewed study last year in The Journal of Wildlife Management outlining the first two years of their six-year research project. They found that the risk of nests and brood-rearing sites failing due to predation or other factors increased the closer they were to a wind turbine.
But they are not sure why. And their study was limited to analyzing the effects on grouse after the wind farm was built and placed into operation in 2008; they did not have data on conditions prior to construction.
Pat Deibert, the Fish and Wildlife Service's national sage grouse coordinator and a biologist by training, said that's why the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project research could give grouse experts "a lot more information on this bird than we've had before."
"There is no other research like this out there," Deibert said. "It's all post-construction, which is always probably somewhat biased simply because you don't have any idea what the birds were doing before construction."
But Deibert said she does "expect impacts" to the grouse from the wind project.
"That's just part of the scientific process," she said. "They could be really minor, they could be major. We're just not really certain where it's going to go."
An enormous undertaking
The scope of the effort to protect and study grouse across the project area is easy to see.
As Kehmeier drove the Ford pickup carefully along County Road 505 on a May afternoon tour of the ranch, a cluster of pronghorn ran along a nearby ridge. To get to most of the study areas requires a truck with specially fitted tires that can not only plow through the mud but withstand the jagged rocks that can puncture most any standard tire.
"One of the first things we ask folks we hire to work up here is: Can you change a tire? And can you get yourself unstuck?" Kehmeier said.
Along the way, Miller pointed out some of the 17 miles of barbed-wire fences they have marked with alternating yellow and orange plastic strips so the grouse don't fly into them. Crashes into barbed-wire fences are one of the prime threats to the bird, and PCW has removed another 10 miles of fences on the ranch that supports 3,000 head of cattle.
At another site miles away on the ranch, the duo pointed to a spot on a flat ridge that rises above thick stands of Wyoming big sagebrush. This breeding ground, called a lek, is one of the most productive on the ranch but almost impossible to distinguish from the rest of the landscape.
Though the project is completely outside of formally state-designated core sage grouse areas, there are 58 grouse leks on the site and in the surrounding study area.
Thanks to the GPS tracking devices Kehmeier and his crew have placed on the backs of grouse, they know exactly where to go to find leks, as well as nests and brood-rearing areas. This has allowed them to collect extensive data on what habitat the grouse use and when they use it.
Project engineers have already rerouted a proposed main road so it would not disturb a crescent-shaped patch of sagebrush located in the west-central part of the ranch. The GPS tag data showed grouse use the area as a "stopover point" to rest "as they move from one seasonal habitat to the next," Kehmeier said.
Overall, Kehmeier and the researchers at the University of Missouri have found that despite the thousands of acres of largely undisturbed ranchlands, the grouse use only about 25 percent of the project area.
"You think of these birds as being scattered across the landscape, and they really are not. They are specialists," he said. "They go to the same areas that provide certain resources every year."
The good news for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project is that this has allowed project developers to carefully site each turbine in locations where they feel confident the habitat is not being widely used by the bird.
The bad news is that some of the ranch that is heavily used by the grouse also contains world-class winds that PCW has pulled from the project.
"We've given up quite a bit from a wind-resource standpoint," Miller said. "But the wind resource was phenomenal to start with."
Indeed, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has classified the wind resources in the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project area as Class 4 or higher, meaning they are high quality.
Miller Hill contains arguably the best onshore wind resources in the Lower 48. The meteorological towers atop the hill have measured an average wind speed of 25 miles per hour -- for an entire calendar year.
"For onshore development, this is as good as it gets," said Ryan Jacobson, director of engineering and construction for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project. "To have this kind of resource, I don't know where else we would be able to get it."
Environmentalists are torn
But the sheer size of the wind farm and the extensive effort to study grouse and site the turbines have garnered a mixed reaction from green groups -- and the wind industry itself.
John Anderson, senior director of permitting policy and environmental affairs at the American Wind Energy Association, said in an email that the research is just one example of the industry "attempting to close the data gaps with respect to wind energy impacts on sage grouse."
But while Anderson said PCW "should be applauded for their efforts," he isn't comfortable having the Chokecherry project held up as model for the industry, adding "what they went through with respect to that particular project should not be required of all development sites."
Some environmentalists praise PCW for its work.
"This could have been a wind farm that really hammered sage grouse country, and they've manufactured a plan to remove the sage grouse aspects of the project," said Brian Rutledge, a vice president and policy adviser with the National Audubon Society's Rocky Mountain region based in Fort Collins, Colo. "They've gone about this in a responsible and professional manner."
Others question the validity of the sage grouse monitoring research, funded primarily by PCW, saying there's already enough information about the birds to justify keeping the project out of the region.
"They can monitor that population there into extinction if they want," said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians based in nearby Laramie, Wyo.
Molvar said PCW's efforts to microsite the turbines won't help the species in the region to survive. "Anybody who believes that is fooling themselves."
But Michael Hutchins, a behavioral ecologist who directs the American Bird Conservancy's Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign, takes a softer stance on the project and the research on grouse.
"Certainly, that type of research is critical going forward, no doubt. We need to know the answers to these types of questions," Hutchins said. "I feel positive that they are at least attempting this, and that they will be doing pre- and post-construction monitoring."
Hutchins, however, worries about the fate of the grouse if the study reveals harm to them.
"My question is, what if this study shows that micrositing [turbines] doesn't work, and the grouse are displaced? What happens next?" he asked. "That's my problem. Once these things are up, they're not coming down regardless of the impacts to the bird."
Deibert, the FWS national sage grouse coordinator, said it's all part of the scientific process to figure out how grouse respond to turbines.
"If there are negative impacts, we take that information and we learn as we move on to the next wind farm and try to do different siting or different structures, something that would make the impact less," she said. "It's bad for the birds at that particular location if there is a huge impact, but we learn from that and move forward."