Federal wildlife officials took the unprecedented step Friday of telling private companies that they will not be prosecuted for inadvertently harassing or even killing endangered California condors.
In a decision swiftly condemned by conservationists and wildlife advocates, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said operators of Terra-Gen Power's wind farm in the Tehachapi Mountains will not be prosecuted if their turbines accidentally kill a condor during the expected 30-year life span of the project.
California condors were brought back from the brink of extinction a quarter-century ago and still cling precariously to survival. Federal law prohibits the harassment or killing of endangered species for any reason.
Fish and Wildlife also made an exception for the 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch Co., saying that the government will not prosecute if construction of the company's controversial 5,553-acre development of luxury homes, hotels and golf courses violates the harassment ban in the endangered species law. The exception will last for 50 years. The project is expected to consume 8% of the critical condor habitat in the Tehachapis, about 60 miles north of Los Angeles.
Fish and Wildlife Director Daniel Ashe said the decision reflects a difficult reality. The threat of prosecution jeopardized the construction of large-scale alternative energy facilities and real estate developments in the wild and windy places preferred by condors.
"This is the first time we've authorized incidental takes of California condors — and we're approaching them very cautiously," Ashe said in an interview.
"The good news is that we have an expanding population of condors, which are also expanding their range," he said. "We have to make sure that as the condor population grows, we are learning to work with local private businesses to fit a conservation effort into the landscape."
The agency invited other wind farms to apply for similar permission.
Wildlife advocates and conservationists said the decision threatens the survival of the 150 free-flying condors in California and will weaken the concept of federally designated critical habitat for endangered species.
The California condor exists today only because of a series of interventions by conservationists and federal wildlife scientists. The huge bird, which has a 9-foot wingspan, can fly 160 miles in a day to satisfy its hunger for carrion.
Wind turbines already kill many species of birds and are suspected of cutting down a number of federally protected golden eagles in the Tehachapis last year. Conservationists say that the government needs to force wind farms to find ways to prevent the deaths rather than granting exceptions to endangered species protections.
"This is a sad day for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," said Adam Keats, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "We're talking about perhaps one of the most endangered species on the planet, let alone in this country. So, the Obama administration said loud and clear today" that it doesn't care about the environment.
Daniel Burnett, treasurer of Kerncrest Audubon, agreed. "I can't believe the federal government is putting so much money into a historic and costly effort to establish a stable population of condors, and at the same time is issuing permits to kill them. Ludicrous."
But Ashe said his agency was encouraged by the increasing number of wind farms considering using radar units and experimental telemetry systems designed to avoid harming birds. Those systems are being designed to identify incoming species early enough to switch off the massive turbines and then — to minimize costs and maximize profits — turn them back on again as quickly as possible.
At a news conference on Friday, Ashe also praised Tejon Ranch's new multi-species habitat conservation plan for protecting the California condor — and 25 other species — on 142,000 acres of the largest parcel of privately owned wilderness in Southern California.
A California condor trucked in from the Los Angeles Zoo was on display during the news conference.