The California Condor is perhaps America’s most iconic endangered species and conservation success story. In the 1980s, the wild population dwindled to just 25 birds, which were brought into captivity as a last resort. By the end of 2019, 337 California Condors soared over the West Coast. It’s still an endangered species, but biologists’ hard work rearing condor chicks and releasing them to the wild has paid off. The population continues to recover and expand.
But the condors may soon be a victim of their own success. This week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the federal agency charged with protecting condors and other endangered species, announced a draft plan five years in the making to allow an energy company to kill a small number of condors at a southern California wind farm. To get the permit, which would apply only to condors killed incidentally (as opposed to intentionally), the company would have to fund efforts, costing millions of dollars, to both prevent condor-turbine collisions and ensure more condors are released to the wild.
The plan is not final, and the agency is seeking public opinion on the proposal through February 5, 2021. While it is almost certainly going to spark a firestorm among conservation advocates, the plan is also an acknowledgement of an uncomfortable truth: that conservationists’ goals—expanding renewable energy to address climate change and recovering endangered species—are not always in alignment. Indeed, the condors and wind turbines appear to be on a collision course.
California Condors once ranged across North America. But a bevy of human impacts, including shooting, poisoning, egg collecting, and lead poisoning from ammo, largely driven by European colonizers, squeezed the birds into a narrower and narrower range. FWS listed the species as federally endangered in 1967 and launched a captive-breeding program in 1982. By 1987, after the last wild California Condors were brought into captivity, the birds were extinct in the wild.
Since then, the species has undergone a remarkable comeback. Biologists figured out how to get the massive raptors to breed in captivity, and by the late 1990s around 20 young condors were produced every year and released to the wild. The birds have since recolonized Baja California, Mexico, northern Arizona, southern Utah, southern California, and central California. Next year, the Yurok Tribe in partnership with FWS plans to release the first condors in northern California.
The potential condor-turbine collision site addressed in the new draft plan is in southern California’s Tehachapi Mountains in Kern County. Since 1992, FWS biologists have released captive-bred condors 75 miles to the west of here, at Sespe Condor Sanctuary within the Los Padres National Forest. As the population has grown—up to 99 individuals in 2019 from six in 1992—the condors’ range has expanded, too. In 2017, GPS transmitters showed that the wide-ranging scavengers soared across 17,500 square miles of southern California territory—a range expansion of 7,000 square miles in five years.
That expansion has pushed them into a dangerous area: the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains, where the spinning rotors of more than 4,000 wind turbines put the scavengers at risk of collision. The Tehachapi Wind Resource Area, a patchwork of wind farms owned by around a dozen private companies, produces more than half of California’s wind energy. The first turbines were built here in 1986, and more have been added through the years. Last year Amazon proposed a new addition to meet its climate change goals.
The draft permit plan published by FWS this week aims to address the coming conflict at the Manzana Wind Power Project, which encompasses 126 turbines in the Tehachapi wind area. The draft plan is a first test of a larger strategy to address condor mortality at wind farms in southern California and beyond, as recovering populations expand into industrial areas that have already been developed.
“These wind projects are not proposed projects: They’re out there, producing renewable energy today. Whether or not we issue these permits, the turbines will be spinning tomorrow,” says Peter Sanzenbacher, a FWS wildlife biologist who’s been working on the Tehachapi condor problem since 2016. “We are trying to get out ahead of this.”
The permit would allow Manzana to incidentally “take” (legalese for kill, harass, or harm) two free-flying California Condors, and two associated eggs or chicks that could die in the nest as a result, over the next 30 years. To date, there are no known condor deaths caused by collision with wind turbines in Tehachapi or anywhere else in the country. But large raptors, including Golden Eagles, have died after colliding with turbines here.
To compensate for these losses, Manzana will commit to protecting southern California’s condors from its turbines for 30 years. They have a head start: In 2018, the company installed a geofence around their property, which tracks GPS-tagged condors in the area. If a tagged condor enters a defined danger zone around the wind farm, third-party contractors located 20 miles away alert Manzana so they can shut down turbines near the approaching condor. In 2019, 81 percent of the southern California population had been outfitted with GPS tags. If the draft plan is approved, this geofence will no longer be voluntary for the company, and instead will become mandatory for 30 years. In addition, staff will monitor the farm for dead livestock (which graze in the area) and other carcasses that might attract condors, to swiftly hide or remove them.
As part of the draft plan, Manzana will also provide funding to help rear new condors at the Oregon Zoo to replace any killed by their turbines. Right now, the zoo has two full-time staff working with 11 pairs of breeding condors to produce chicks for release. Under the mitigation scheme, Manzana will fund an additional full-time condor keeper at the zoo, which would allow them to support more breeding condor pairs. The draft plan proposes that the wind operator fund this position until this staffer rears and releases six additional condors into the wild.
The draft plan puts the cost of maintaining the geofence for 30 years at Manzana at $8.5 million. Funding an Oregon Zoo condor keeper will cost just over $500,000 over five years.
The condor-turbine collision course puts bird conservationists in a tricky situation, too. Climate change is a significant threat to bird populations and species nationwide. A 2019 report from the National Audubon Society found that 389 bird species could see their ranges shrink significantly as climate change alters their habitats, placing them at risk of extinction. That makes installing wind energy and other renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels, which emit the carbon pollution warming Earth’s atmosphere, a top priority for many environmentalists. But they must walk a tightrope because wind turbine blades can kill birds, so facilities must be installed in the correct places, away from important bird migration corridors and habitat.
Audubon’s science and clean energy teams are currently analyzing the new documents. “The Fish and Wildlife Service and Avangrid Renewables [the owner of the Manzana Wind Project] have been keeping Audubon informed on the progress of this application for almost a year, so we were expecting this—although not as a holiday present,” says Garry George, director of Audubon’s Clean Energy Initiative. “We’ll file comments on the permit application in early February. Audubon has a long history of working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the recovery of condors in California.”
This draft permit also points to larger issues around endangered species planning and habitat designation. The condors had been released in the Los Padres National Forest on an ongoing basis for 20 years when Manzana Wind began its operations not far away. Yet the wind farm was built anyway, seemingly blind to the incoming collision if California Condors successfully reestablished the population.
“It doesn’t seem like a good place to have put one in the first place. Wind developers aren’t paying sufficient attention to these issues ahead of time,” says Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy. “The only way a species can recover is by occupying habitat they are not currently living in. If you’ve already filled that habitat with wind turbines, how are they going to recover?"