LARAMIE — Environmentalists in Wyoming are known for pushing back on industry’s impacts to the health of Wyoming’s wild ecosystems. From sage grouse protections to the reclamation that follows coal mining, there is a robust environmental community in the state that attends various regulatory meetings.
But many of these folks are also, in many cases, friendly to wind development, an industry that has been criticized for its effect on eagles, raptors and other avian species that are killed by the blades of wind turbines.
They are willing to make this concession to wind for a single unifying reason. They believe in climate change, said panelists at the University of Wyoming’s recent wind conference here.
“In my organization, it really is the greater threat, not just to wildlife, but to everything we do,” said Connie Wilbert, director of the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club. “For me, personally, this is a very scary topic.”
In Wyoming, about 61 percent of residents believe in global warming, but only 42 percent believe it is caused by humans, according to a Yale University study released earlier this year.
“I am not willing to sacrifice the wildlife and the resources that we have on a theory that you are going to reduce the temperature of the Earth,” said a rancher in the audience. “I represent a lot of blue collar people, who are just out there busting their butt, like to go hunting and fishing … I think it’s time you pay attention to some of the people that’ve got common sense.”
For those in the scientific community, discussing climate change is a challenge in Wyoming, largely one of language and education, said Embere Hall, research scientist with the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the university.
“Climate change can be a very tough subject,” Hall said. “For whatever reason, it has become a very politicized subject, particularly in areas where a lot of the income for a state or an organization comes from extractive industries.”
Many people outside academia are uncomfortable with the uncertainties that come along with climate change projections. But uncertainty is part of how science works, something the average person is less familiar with, panelists agreed.
“I think figuring out ways to talk about climate change in a way that makes sense is very important,” said Hall. “We live in a sound bite world, at least in terms of media engagement.”
A number of people in the crowd voiced their own sense of conflict over wind development in the West, from viewsheds to wildlife.
“That essence of wildness will be forever gone,” said a data collector in the audience, who’s worked on the same patch of land in Wyoming for three years.
Others in the crowd were concerned with the uncertainty not of climate change but of the scale of impacts to wildlife from renewable development, something scientists are continuing to study and figure out in Wyoming.
Wilbert of the Sierra Club said renewable industry should be approached with caution, avoiding impact wherever possible.
However, simply saying no to solar and wind is not the answer, she said.
“We don’t believe that because there are impacts, and a great deal of uncertainty about how high those impacts are, that we should reject in a blanket way the development of renewables and wind in particular,” she said.