Sage grouse unlikely focus of Wyoming wind wars

Mon Aug 3, 2009 9:24am EDT
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By Ed Stoddard

CARBON, Wyoming (Reuters) - They used to mine coal in the abandoned town of Carbon. Now this patch of southern Wyoming is a battleground in the debate over what many hope will be the clean energy source of the future: wind power.

At the heart of the dispute are plans to build a network of wind farms in the American West that conservationists fear could disrupt threatened habitat such as sage brush, a dwindling piece of the region's fragile ecosystem.

This has made the greater sage grouse -- which as its name suggests is totally dependent on sage brush -- an unlikely poster child for some U.S. environmentalists, in much the same way that the rare spotted owl became a symbol in the 1980s of pitched battles with the logging industry.

Wyoming is home to 54 percent of the greater sage grouse population in North America. The bird's status is being evaluated for inclusion on the U.S. government's threatened or endangered species list, which would give it more protection.

The problem: The chicken-sized bird lives in the vast tracts of wind-whipped open spaces that make Wyoming highly attractive to the wind industry.

Near Carbon, the focus is on a 198-turbine, $600 million wind farm proposed by Horizon Wind Energy.

"They want to build it around here but we need to be thinking truly green. It is not just about our carbon footprint," said Alison Holloran of the National Audubon Society in Wyoming, as she pointed to clumps of grayish sage brush along a dirt road.

Wind power will play a huge role in any move by the United States to reduce its emissions of the greenhouse gases that most scientists believe are the main causes of rapid climate change. The burning of coal and the use of other fossil fuels such as oil are the largest single source of carbon emissions, so the race is on for "clean energy" alternatives.   Continued...

<p>Sage brush is shown outside Carbon, Wyoming on July 22, 2009. REUTERS/Ed Stoddard</p>