Never are the agencies of the federal government more efficient, more capable than when they are working at diametric cross purposes — canceling out one objective with another.
Agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which are under the Interior Department, have been doubling down on efforts to save the greater sage grouse habitat across 11 Western states, including Nevada, by shutting down ranching, farming, mining and oil and gas exploration.
At the same time the Interior Department has a policy of encouraging and expediting development of renewable energy production on public lands — solar, wind, biomass, geothermal — and providing rights-of-way to link those usually remote sites to the power grid.
For example, the One Nevada Transmission Line Project, dubbed ON Line by NV Energy, buzzed to life shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve, according to the Lincoln County Record. The 235-mile, 500-kilovolt transmission line built by NV Energy links Apex to Ely and is intended to carry wind, solar and geothermal energy to market. It cost $550 million with $350 million of that coming from federal tax money.
Those distinctive, especially designed power poles with the “helical strakes” to cut wind vibration now dot the landscape of eastern Nevada, stretching across what is being described as “essential” sage grouse habitat.
Now, along comes a study in the January issue of The Condor: Ornithological Applications. Authors Kristy Howe of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Idaho State University, Peter Coates of the U.S. Geological Survey, and David Delehanty of Idaho State University found that in southeastern Idaho the number of ravens has increased eleven-fold between 1985 and 2009.
Ravens are one of the primary sage grouse predators. The sage grouse themselves are too big for ravens to prey on but ravens attack the nests and eat the eggs and hatchlings. Ravens also prey on endangered Desert Tortoise, endangered San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike and California Least Tern.
Therefore, it was interesting to discover that 58 percent of raven nests in southeastern Idaho are located on power line transmission poles, 14 percent were on other human-made towers and only 19 percent in trees.
The report noted that transmission poles are taller than any other object and afford the ravens a wider range of vision, greater attack speed and easier take-off. Nesting on the poles may also provide greater security from predators, range fires, and heat stress, which might help explain the population boom.
The raven population in the West has increased 300 percent in 40 years. “Such an increase likely poses an increased threat to sagebrush steppe species subject to raven depredation, including sage-grouse for which eggs and young are consumed by ravens,” the report said.
“By altering the landscape with roads, facility construction, billboards, and transmission lines, and in some cases providing sources of water and food, we are subsidizing ravens and providing them with the opportunities and advantages they need to excel in areas that they didn’t before,” said lead study author Kristy Howe. “This is bad news for the animals in that ecosystem upon which ravens prey.”
But the Interior does not list predators as high on the list of threats to sage grouse, of course, just human activity, except transmission lines.
It is richly ironic that at the same time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is pressing to list the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act that the Interior continues to encourage renewable energy projects such as wind turbines and solar panels in remote areas that must be connected to the grid via power lines that become sniper nests from which ravens can dispatch sage grouse eggs and hatchlings.
Pile this atop the double cross-purpose irony that just two months ago the Interior Department extended the wind energy industry’s permits to wantonly kill truly endangered bald and golden eagles with wind turbines from five years to 30 years. The penalty for killing, injuring or capturing a bald eagle is a $10,000 fine and up to two years in prison.
David Yarnold, president and CEO of the Audubon Society, said, “Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check.”
Miners, farmers and ranchers need not stand out by the mailbox waiting for their checks from Uncle Sam to arrive.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may share your views with him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.