A battle over birds is unfolding at a new wind farm just east of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. It pits a Spanish company against a California utility, while bird lovers watch from the sidelines to see who wins.
The Rim Rock wind farm, owned and operated by the Spanish company NaturEner, is located near a high-density breeding and nesting ground for golden eagles and ferruginous hawks northwest of Shelby.
"Kevin Rim is a great place for wind but it is also an incredible place for raptors," says Janet Ellis, program director of Montana Audubon. "The turbines are sitting on top of this rim and they have identified seven golden eagle nests in the area, 47 ferruginous hawk nests, ... 10 different species of raptors that nest on the rim, and it has been known for a long time as a mecca for raptors in Montana." She adds that Kevin Rim is an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area.
One of the wind farm's principal clients, San Diego Gas & Electric Company, wants to back out of its commitments with NaturEner because of the threat the farm poses to birds in the area. The two companies took the issue to court in December, with SDG&E filing a lawsuit in California and NaturEner filing suit in Montana.
On March 4, Montana District Judge Brenda Gilbert reaffirmed a temporary injunction that prohibits SDG&E from canceling its contracts with NaturEner until the case moves forward.
The companies are arguing over certain bird-related provisions in their contracts. SDG&E believes NaturEner misled it about the likelihood of eagle mortality at the wind farm and is thereby in breach of contract. NaturEner says it uses ample precautions like bird spotters and radar systems to protect avian species and that if SDG&E backs out of its commitments the wind farm will not be able to pay off its loans.
For bird lovers, the legal spat is evidence that the improper placement of wind farms can cause serious problems.
"We tried to warn NaturEner as well as [SDG&E] that it could become a black eye," says Ellis, whose organization advised NaturEner on the project design to help mitigate impacts on birds. "... There is a lot of wind in Montana and so we are just hoping that wind companies generally don't want to be in locations that are really important wildlife habitat."
Ellis says one goshawk and one ferruginous hawk have died at the site since the wind farm became operational 2 years ago.