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The most powerful environmental law on the books

An upcoming Need to Know report from the windy prairies of Wyoming will look at how the push for a green economy is creating strange alliances in a conflict between renewable energy proponents and wildlife conservationists.

Many of the state’s rugged ranchers have become unlikely proponents of wind power. Livestock rearing can be a hard life and plenty of landowners welcome the secondary source of income that would come from leasing their acreage to wind companies. But in some areas, plans for turbine development have been put on hold because of a hefty, chicken-sized bird called the sage grouse.

Thousands of sage grouse blanketing the Western sagebrush was a common scene in the 19th century. In recent decades, though, agricultural and industrial developments have decimated their population. Now, wind looms as a potential threat. Grouse don’t like to nest near tall structures — like towering wind turbines — because they provide perches for predators. (It’s quite unlikely a hawk could find a foothold on the spinning blades of a turbine, but try explaining that to a mother sage grouse).

Environmental advocates petitioned for the bird to be placed on the Endangered Species list, but earlier this year the Department of the Interior announced that the grouse would only be a “candidate species” for endangered status: The federal government will monitor their population annually, but the bird will not be subject to extensive national protection.

That could all change, however, if sage grouse numbers fall any further or new threats enter their habitat. So with the shadow of the Endangered Species Act still looming, Wyoming state officials have enacted their own conservation initiatives. For now, that means wind development in core sage grouse habitats is on hold.

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