In March, 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released its final Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines. These present a tiered approach for the consideration and analysis of potential impacts to wildlife and habitat from onshore, wind-energy development. The five-tier process and other guidance found in the Guidelines aim to efficiently avoid and minimize impacts to wildlife and habitat by guiding the decisions of developers from the initial stages of site selection through the development of project design and the ultimate construction and operation of a project. While the Guidelines are voluntary, this new publication represents the informal rulebook by which the USFWS will judge the appropriateness of a site or project design and the adequacy of mitigation, including for purposes of enforcement. The new Guidelines replace the interim guidance published by the USFWS in 2003 and are effective immediately. The final version of the Guidelines does not significantly differ from the September 2011 draft version that was issued for public comment.
The Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines are voluntary recommendations providing guidance to private developers, state and federal agencies, and tribes in the development of utility-scale, community-scale, and distributed wind projects. The USFWS’s tiered process is intended to help identify sites with low risk to wildlife, assess potential adverse effects to species of concern and their habitat, and mitigate and monitor these impacts. This approach provides information to the developer at several key decision points, influencing whether to abandon a potential project site, proceed with development, or collect additional information to further evaluate a project.
Communications between developers and USFWS staff and input from the USFWS are key Guidelines components. In particular, the USFWS recommends that a developer consult with USFWS staff as early in the project development process as possible and prior to completing the site-specific studies within Tier 3 that will determine whether a site is developed and how the project will be designed to avoid or mitigate potential impacts. The USFWS aims to provide project recommendations within 60 days of receiving information from a developer. The USFWS underscores that the Guidelines are voluntary and decisions are ultimately in the hands of the developer, but the USFWS retains authority to evaluate whether a developer’s efforts to mitigate impacts are sufficient, to determine significance, and to refer for prosecution any unlawful take the USFWS believes is reasonably related to a failure to incorporate USFWS recommendations or insufficient adherence to the Guidelines.
The Guidelines delineate five tiers. Tiers 1, 2, and 3 are pre-construction steps to help identify, avoid, and minimize risks to species of concern. Tiers 4 and 5 provide post-construction guidance to assess whether actions taken in earlier tiers to avoid or minimize impacts are successful and to determine whether additional steps are necessary to compensate for impacts. Each tier includes a set of three to seven key questions and a list of decision points, as well as recommended study designs, methods, or metrics to guide the investigation and ultimate decisions associated with that tier. The USFWS anticipates that it will likely not be necessary to implement all of the tiers, or every element of a given tier, for each project.
Tier 1 – Preliminary Site Evaluation. This involves screening a broad geographical area to avoid areas of high sensitivity and determine if species of concern or their habitat are present at specific potential sites. Tier 1 provides a discussion of methods and metrics.
Tier 2 – Site Characterization. This calls for a relatively broad characterization of one or more potential project sites to determine probability of significant adverse impacts. This tier includes at least one reconnaissance-level site visit and investigation of previously conducted studies, databases, or other published information for the area. Tier 2 includes a discussion of methods and metrics.
Tier 3 – Field Studies to Document Site Wildlife and Habitat and Predict Project Impacts. Here, the developer evaluates the probability of significant adverse impacts through quantitative site-specific field studies. Based on this information, the developer will decide to continue or abandon a specific site and, if development goes forward, potentially make decisions to design or operate the project to avoid or minimize significant adverse impacts. Tier 3 includes recommended study design considerations and technical resources.
Tier 4 – Post-Construction Studies to Estimate Impacts. These will be implemented according to the outcome of the investigations and studies in Tiers 1, 2, and 3. Some level of post-construction study is anticipated for most projects. Tier 4 studies assess whether predictions of fatality risk and direct and indirect impacts to habitat were correct. Studies to evaluate habitat impacts such as species of habitat fragmentation concern will be necessary only when Tier 3 studies indicate the potential for significant adverse impacts for such species. Tier 4 provides protocol design considerations and study objectives.
Tier 5 – Other Post-Construction Studies. This involves additional site-specific studies that may be called for based on Tier 4 studies. The Guidelines say that Tier 5 studies will not be necessary for most projects, and underscore that the tiered decision-making process steers projects away from sites where Tier 5 studies would be necessary. Tier 5 studies analyze factors associated with potentially significant impacts indicated in Tier 4 analyses, identify why mitigation measures implemented for a project were not adequate, and assess demographic effects on local populations of species of concern when demographic information is important.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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