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California condors drag on state wind power

Sarah Gardner May 14, 2012

Jeremy Hobson: Plans to build hundreds of new wind turbines here in California are being held up by a lawsuit from environmentalists. The worry is that wind farms could harm the already endangered California condor, a bird that likes windy places.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sarah Gardner reports.

Sarah Gardner: We all know that wind turbines kill birds. But if a California condor has a fatal attraction to one of those gigantic turbines? Expect front-page headlines.

Nancy Rader: Sure it’s a concern and we take it very seriously.

Nancy Rader speaks for wind companies that do business in California. She says they’re doing everything they can to avoid killing North America’s largest land bird. And it’s not just because the condor’s an endangered species with a freakishly long wingspan. This bald-headed, weak-toed vulture also has a lot of friends — and they’re watching the condor like a hawk.

Vince Gerwe: Every bird in the wild have transmitters on them, either on the tail feathers or the wings.

Vince Gerwe is just one in an army of volunteers, wildlife biologists, birders and zookeepers obsessed with saving these ugly birds from extinction. Gerwe alone spends hundreds of hours a year tracking their movements and their nesting places in southern California.

Gerwe: Last year I drove 3,000 or 4,000 miles.

Gardner: And you’re paying for your own gas, I take it?

Gerwe: Yes, ma’am I sure am.

Gerwe says the government’s even put solar-powered GPS devices on some of the birds, at $3,000 a pop.

There are now about 400 condors in the western U.S., but half of them are still in protective breeding programs. And people like Kim Delfino at Defenders of Wildlife aren’t about to let renewable energy ruin the condor’s fragile success story — even if wind power is green.

Kim Delfino: We want to see wind prevail. But we also want to see it done smartly.

The industry insists wind turbines are a “small and theoretical threat” to the condor. But wind operators theoretically could face jail time under the Endangered Species Act if a turbine kills one of these bald-headed wonders. Industry’s investigating ways to avoid a tragedy, including a costly solution: emerging radar technology that could temporarily shut down a wind turbine when the big birds fly too close for comfort.

In Ventura, Calif., I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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