Shortly after Wyoming’s first large-scale solar project came online in 2019, the antelopes rose to prominence.
More than 1,000 pronghorns – the “American antelope” – galloped down Wyoming’s Highway 372 that winter, terrifying drivers and biologists alike. The animals typically migrated over public land, but with the 700-acre Sweetwater Solar Farm blocking their path, they took to the highway.
State officials are now working to ensure that doesn’t happen again as energy developers consider large swathes of land for large-scale solar projects. Angi Bruce, deputy director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said while the state encourages energy development, it also prioritizes “making sure our wildlife thrives because we value it so much here.”
“Wyoming is one of the few states that still has vast, untouched landscapes of outstanding native ecosystems to support wildlife populations,” she said. “There can be conflicts.
A recent study sheds light on how these conflicts can emerge. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in ecology and the environmentused GPS collars on adult pronghorns and measured their movements before and after Sweetwater was built.
Nearly 70% of pronghorns used the planned site and had to modify their migration. Of the migrating animals, 86% used the site and were pushed to a new route. Up to 12 percent of the species’ average summer range and 10 percent of its average winter range have been lost.
Hall Sawyer, a researcher at Western Ecosystems Technology and lead author of the study, said energy developers have always had to be aware of wildlife impacts, but solar farms present a particular challenge. Safety regulations require large solar installations to be surrounded by a fence at least 2 meters (about 6 ½ feet) high.
“It’s so simple, yet often overlooked, that these fences are impervious to big game and large mammals,” Sawyer said in an interview. “That habitat just disappeared.”
The problem could also affect elk, deer and other large mammals.
Sawyer emphasized that his study is not sunscreen. Instead, he said, the results should inspire solar developers to think more creatively about siting decisions and site design. Solar projects could be dismantled, with corridors between them, he said, or could be moved to allow wide areas of migration. The problem, Sawyer said, is that there is too little data to develop best practices.
“Given the extent of our big game populations, it will be quite common for these projects to overlap their habitat,” Sawyer said. “The next step has to be experimentation, so maybe in a few years we can figure out how to build the venues with the least impact.”
“Complete Habitat Removal”
The Department of Energy’s Solar Futures Study predicts that solar power deployment will need to reach 1,600 gigawatts of AC power by 2050 to achieve a carbon-free grid, requiring installations to be deployed at four times the current rate between 2025 and 2030.
The Bureau of Land Management has stepped up approvals for more than 29 GW of solar capacity on federal lands in western states, according to an agency fact sheet, as part of an expected push to boost installation solar.
This push, however, has also created implementation issues, especially since projects can quickly roll off the drawing board.
“It’s kind of shocking the level of impact solar installations have compared to other generating installations,” said Jon Holst, senior wildlife and energy advisor for Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Even the wind, as another renewable energy opportunity, allows some movement of wildlife. Solar has these high fenced facilities; vegetation is removed; some of them are leveled and gravelled. You talk about complete removal of habitat.
It is believed that there were once thousands of pronghorns in the area around Yellowstone National Park, according to a recent report from park staff.
Hunting, poaching, range clearing, and a series of harsh winters reduced these numbers to hundreds in the 20th century; a 1995 population count found only 235 pronghorns in the Yellowstone area.
Reviving this population, the researchers wrote, will require restoring migratory routes and giving the animals more room to roam. Animals make large seasonal movements to feed and escape predators; animals around Yellowstone were known to travel 50 miles in the fall to find open plains, retreat to the high plains in the winter, and then move to the high grasslands inside the park in the spring.
However, encroaching development and highway construction have constricted their habitat. A 2018 order from the Department of the Interior directed federal agencies to work with states to help restore large mammal habitat, especially around highways and through developments.
That doesn’t mean solar projects are a no-go in traditional pronghorn habitats, said Justin Loyka, a Wyoming-based energy programs manager with the Nature Conservancy. Developers and state regulators, he said, should be aware of the potential pitfalls of any solar site and try to address them from the start.
“The Nature Conservancy recognizes the need for our society to decarbonize. We want to achieve our net zero goals by 2050,” Loyka said. “This means we need to link our climate change goals with our concerns about the impact of new energy development. It means encouraging things that are not always considered when developing new projects. »
“We are still learning”
Holst, who previously worked for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said approval for solar projects differs in western states, a “mishmash” that often leaves wildlife agencies on the sidelines.
In Colorado, he said, state wildlife officials can be asked to consult on projects above a certain size but don’t have veto power.
Large solar farms don’t just disturb large animals. Concerns range from fragile ecosystems to bird species like the sage grouse.
Arizona regulators have worked with conservationists to avoid putting new renewable projects in bat migration corridors, while other states have tried to hold wildlife experts accountable. This does not mean that their advice is followed; in fact, Wyoming officials raised objections to the Sweetwater project before it was installed.
“It’s common for state wildlife agencies to have no legislative regulatory authority,” Holst said, noting that Colorado legislation gives wildlife agencies veto power over the location of oil and gas projects. gas. “The first step should be that every national wildlife agency has the opportunity to participate, not after the fact, but as these developments are considered.”
This is the role that Wyoming Game and Fish tries to play. Bruce said his department tries to work with project developers at the planning stage so they can find a new location or redesign fencing to better accommodate species.
“These are things that we are still learning and understanding. That’s why one of our other recommendations is pre- and post-species monitoring,” Bruce said. “We’re really trying to focus on what we think the impacts might be, and that’s data that we can use in future projects.”
Data collection is particularly important because so little is known; it is still unclear how many mooring antelopes will give to a fence, for example.
Changing plans, she said, can add cost and time to solar projects, a particular challenge during a current supply chain crisis that is pushing developers at all costs to install panels on field.
“We try to see this as a way to encourage sustainability rather than penalizing developers,” Bruce said. “We are preparing to continue working with solar, and our track record shows that we will take this very seriously to support the energy sector.”
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