“America’s largest wind farm:” An environmental disaster?

Recent news stories focus on how a conservation easement on a large ranch in northwest Colorado is blocking a major new transmission line, and therefore stalling the enormous Chokecherry-Sierra Madre wind farm in southcentral Wyoming. While these articles make some valid points about the need for renewable energy, they gloss over the reality that this particular wind farm is, and always has been, an environmentally harmful renewable energy project, inappropriately sited in sensitive sage grouse and golden eagle habitats. The reporters therefore skirt perhaps the most important question facing our society as we make the necessary transition from dirty fossil fuels to renewable energy: Are renewable energy projects actually environmentally sustainable, and if not, what does it take to make them so?

This question puts a fine point on the twin looming disasters that humanity has brought upon the Earth: the Climate Crisis and the Biodiversity Crisis. If we leave half the Earth to nature and radically reduce our environmental footprint on the remainder, we might well halt ecosystem collapse and the extinction pandemic in the short term, but if the climate crisis deepens, we could end up on a hot, stormy, lifeless planet anyway — and if we focus myopically on just the reducing fossil fuels, we might revert to a cooler planet only to find it depauperate in plants and animals and ultimately incapable of supporting our own species. The climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are of equal importance to humans and every other species with which we share this globe, and it would be foolhardy to ignore either in pursuit of solutions for the other.

This is where the LA Times’ article proves short-sighted: It treats the TransWest Express powerline, and the Chokecherry-Sierra Madre wind farm that it serves, as unqualified benefits for the Earth’s environment. In reality, neither would have ever been built in an environmentally sustainable world.

The Chokecherry-Sierra Madre wind farm is sited on a checkerboard of public and private lands that the State of Wyoming originally designated as Core habitats for greater sage grouse. This designation precludes wind farms, because sage grouse avoid tall structures, and therefore building a wind farm ruins sage grouse habitat. And this is a really big wind farm, stretching across hundreds of thousands of acres of prime habitat. The Anschutz Corporation only got permission to site their wind farm in such a problematic locale by goading the Sage Grouse Local Working Group into moving the boundaries of the Core habitats so the Chokecherry-Sierra Madre project was excluded, and thus exempted, from environmental protections.

Add in the heavy losses of golden eagles forecasted for the project, and it’s a biodiversity disaster.

Ensuring that renewable projects don’t cause major environmental problems is a matter of intelligent siting. I am the author of a 2008 report titled Wind Power in Wyoming: Doing it Smart from the Start. This statewide Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping analysis takes into account sensitive wildlife habitats, culturally important landscapes, and other environmental considerations, as well as recommending best practices to minimize impacts in areas of moderate concern.

After this report was published, many wind power companies re-sited their Wyoming wind farms into more environmentally responsible locations. But not Anschutz. The Chokecherry-Sierra Madre wind farm is plowing ahead in a “no-go” red zone, marked for complete exclusion of wind energy projects.

The LA Times seems to blame the Biden administration – and the conservation easement on the Cross Mountain Ranch – for depriving Californians of clean, renewable energy. In reality, Californians should be thankful to both entities for sparing Wyoming open spaces and wildlife habitats from a shoddy project slated to wreak completely unnecessary and unwarranted environmental destruction.

There are plenty of places in Wyoming with abundant wind resources and few if any environmental conflicts, where utility-scale wind farms would do little harm to lands and wildlife and therefore be an unquestionable environmental win.

Beyond this, if policymakers were to shift the focus to building distributed renewables projects instead – like solar arrays on rooftops and parking-lot shade awnings – the vast majority of energy production could occur in developed areas with lack any remaining natural values. That’s a win for the climate, a win for biodiversity, and could be (if focused on helping underserved communities become energy self-sufficient) a win for social justice as well.

Californians have done a lot of good in Wyoming by demanding that electrons they import come solely from renewable sources. It’s choking off the Powder River Basin coal industry, a major win for the climate and for the land as well. Keep up the good work!

Let’s just remember to think critically before backing large-scale renewable projects on public lands. They’re not all environmentally sustainable.

Erik Molvar is Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.




  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    So rather than constructing this wind farm in a sustainable way – protecting wildlife & environment – the “corporate decision” was to just do as it pleases?
    IF – IF we humans are indeed going to save ourselves AND this planet – what will it matter if we are the only species left? Allowing this entity to go forward with this venture – rather than using an area that can be used with NO eradication of sage grouse – NO slaughter of eagles – possibly an increase of financial expense – but saving at least two species & their habitat to better this planet? How hard is that?
    Frankly, with what is still small petty taxes against corporations and billionaires, past time for them to pay THEIR fair share. Preventing the owner of this wind farm from putting this project into this area seems a good way to go!

    1. Makuye Avatar

      All hawks and vultures who cruise such installations (which induce visible rodents, by the way. The preferred grasses, etc. are rodent food, seeds . . .) get whacked.

      Migratory birds, especially on more clouded nights – many travel by night – get whacked.
      Thus, the big fans (impellers) are destructive to environments because of complete habitat conversion, from ANY xeric or mesic bushes and trees. Ground is hotter there. You may have to be there to understand, with thermometers and other tools.
      while some non-birdwhacking designs have been tried since the 1970s, the habitat conversion is a severe intractable problem and these should NEVER be installed on public lands, which are our major possible refugia for the organisms that CANNOT move.
      The heat island created does induce more updraft, an attractor of keen soaring bird senses. You may have to observe the vultures in migration – they DO eye others who gain elevation and move to join them — WHACK!

      Since I observe behavior, I have come to love, as we do with intimacy, these animals all,and do NOT feel that large wind electric is a valid tech.

      Los Angles is mentioned. That area gets from 10-20 inches of rain historically with marine fog/stratus layer only near the sea. Thus it is PRIME suitability for rooftop solar.
      Rooftop solar is the only really acceptable energy source – photovoltaic has been cheapening and growing massively
      active solar water panels can reduce or eliminate hot water generation, as well. THE big Mojave solar array is concave 1/2 cylinders focusing on water pipes, which creates steam or differentially dense water (I obviously have not studied it, though it has been there over forty years)to impel generators. It occurs in Joshua Tree country – a big lily family plant that, though it may move north, is vulnerable to extinction, as it is a high desert plant not suited to 24-7 intense heat although temps rise inn summer there past 125F – even forty years ago!
      THis is an indicator of other endemic species that arefragmented or eliminated by big industrial arrays. While shadeis offeredforsmall organisms, it ismade quite barren, and to one who has crawled under and over pathless nature, preferring NO humancreaedpath, such clearing is biological abomination.
      (Paths in the dense forests with which I’m familiar, disappear completely within a couple years. Ungulates and predators tend to take advantage of bear- dozing, 1 meter to 1 1/2 in height in truly richly growing forest. Due to edible vegetation and fruits always slowly migrating, tree fall, etc. such paths are transient). Foxpaths, of course , too small.

      More Optimistic limitation of human energy generation:
      China has already installed photovoltaic tech into highways, and THAT is another , the last, to me,acceptable power generation.

      Research is creating more effective cheap photovoltaic and battery materials, which are rather complex to discuss here, but silica is one of the most abundant elements in the crust, and it will be playing a larger and larger part.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        It just seems to go from bad to worse, doesn’t it. 🙁

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    This is what I am afraid will happen. A rush to put these things up in a misguided understanding (or maybe just not caring) of ‘green’. And creating ‘green jobs’ of course.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    How much money have they put aside for court challenges? 🙂

  4. Gail Avatar

    There’s a big problem with these projects, whether large or smaller scale. Even in more populated rural areas, they are constructed near migratory flyways and hilltop ridges.
    They “do the studies”, etc but in the end it’s all b.s.
    For example, in my area they were asked to not build due to fear of bird and bat destruction. So what did they do? They assigned a “safe area” for bats (get this) 400 miles from the project site! And to top it all off, post-construction bird studies are no longer even mentioned.
    I could go on….

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      So the bats are supposed to KNOW where the “safe area” is???
      People are idiots (not just occasionally).

    2. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      I’m not sure if they changed the laws to no longer require reporting of bird deaths, and some semantics about ‘intent’ or accidental deaths. (If you know that wind turbines and large-scale wind kills and proceed anyway, I’m not sure how that fits into that loophole).

      It started under the Obama Administration for ‘a 30-year take permit’ or exception from bird protection laws in the interest of furthering the industry, and I don’t know if it ever went through. And I can see Biden going down the same route. Trump brought about the ‘intent’ exception, I believe.

      The trouble with watching and waiting is once the damage is done, it cannot be undone – like USF&W is saying about the overkilling of wolves.

  5. Michael A. Lewis Avatar

    Local solar on existing buildings is a grand idea … except that production of solar panels requiring mining of metals and rare minerals, energy, high quality sand and toxic materials to construct solar panels, maintenance of panels while in use, replacement with new panels in 25-30 years.

    Reduce energy demand first, then local energy production at point of use only where necessary.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Reduce demand is something I really would like to see, but I don’t know if it is possible.

      1. Micahel Alewis Avatar

        Of course it’s possible. My wife and I have lived on 42 KWH and 6 therms per month for over twenty years. We don’t have TeeVee, cell phones or other phantom energy grabbers. We walk wherever we go, so no car, electric or otherwise. We don’t dozens of “labor saving” appliances cluttering up the kitchen and the rest of the house. Simple in means, simple in ends.

        1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
          Maggie Frazier

          Yes it IS possible – but I’m afraid you are the exception – looking around at the people focused on their phone constantly – a telephone, for crying out loud! Cant get along without it – or their car, and all the other “necessities”. Its not that this isnt possible – its the individual NEED that most have no idea how to get along without.

  6. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    Can WWP, WEG, The Wilderness Society & Defenders of Wildlife, and all those who have standing in the Transwest Express EIS get in on this piece of litigation ?

    They’re also excavating an archaeological site, I heard Indian camp, on the lower Yampa upstream from Cross Mountain Ranch. The BLM archaeologist is out of the Kremmling office and the excavation Co from Rock Springs. The Little Snake FO told me they are “data gathering” but I can’t get a call back on the details. So they just stash the data away and build anyway without Public input ?

  7. Gerald Jech Avatar
    Gerald Jech

    Sage grouse need to be listed as an Endangered or Threatened Species. That would make it more difficult for encroaching into their critical habitat. Not a perfect solution, but that would provide a bit more protection than they get at the present time.


Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Ralph Maughan