Wyoming will monitor the wind energy industry's effects on wildlife through guidelines unanimously approved by the Game and Fish Commission on Friday.
The commission resisted calls from some landowners and some industry representatives who wanted to delay approval of the 65-page document because of technical issues and concerns about private property rights.
"We need a starting point," said Jerry Galles, a commissioner from Casper.
"We need you, you need us," Galles said. "We would encourage wind developers to work with landowners."
So the commission directed the Game and Fish Department to meet with landowners who claimed the guidelines -- "best management practices" -- would intrude on their property.
"This is not about wind, this is not about wildlife," said Wheatland rancher Robert Whitton.
"It's about private property rights," said Whitton, chairman of the Renewable Energy Alliance of Landowners (REAL), a group of landowner associations that want to attract wind development in eastern Wyoming. "The intent of this document is to control what I do on my own property."
He and half of the 30 speakers at the nearly five-hour hearing at the Game and Fish Department's office in Casper opposed the document.
Besides the private property rights issue, they said the Game and Fish Department took a "one-size-fits-all" approach to wind development on public and private lands, and it did not publicize its work and the document.
However, the department's habitat protection coordinator, Mary Flanderka, said it had been working on the project for more than two years, posted its first draft on its website in November, extended the comment period deadline from Dec. 18 to Feb. 1, received 40 comments in 400 pages of documentation and published another draft on March 19 and the final draft on April 5.
David Willms, assistant attorney general for water and natural resources, said the document offers recommendations for the Industrial Siting Council to determine whether a large wind energy project should be permitted and does not involve government control of private property.
"It's simply a recommendation, and Game and Fish cannot enforce it," Willms said. "I'm comfortable that under Wyoming law, this doesn't amount to a regulatory taking."
Ranchers who have considered wind energy development on their land as another source of revenue disputed that.
For example, the recommendations include buffers between wind turbines and habitats for a variety of species such as sage grouse and prairie dogs.
But buffers of specific distances could affect whether companies will be able to build wind farms, which in turn would affect ranchers' business, they said.
"This will create additional burdens for private landowners," said Jim Bennage of the Wyoming Board of Agriculture.
Kara Brighton of the Hageman & Brighton Law Office in Cheyenne said the document represents an inappropriate use of agency power, and the Game and Fish Commission will be put in the position of paying landowners for their losses because of the recommendations.
"If you want to limit the use of their property, you have to compensate them," Brighton said.
Not all speakers objected, and some urged the commission to approve the document.
"We are looking at a push by very big companies because they can make a lot of money," said Harold Schultz.
"You are going to be hit with a lot of pressure to delay them," Schultz said. "For all these companies coming in, there has to be some adult supervision."
Lisa Mangus of the Northern Laramie Range Land Alliance said the organization's 800 members want the commission to approve the document.
A lot of ranchers in Converse County also favor the document and their voices need to be heard, too, Mangus said.
During a break, Wyoming Outdoor Council wildlife biologist Sophie Osborn said the Game and Fish Commission already manages wildlife on private property by setting hunting seasons, which means a landowner cannot shoot an elk on his own property out of season.
Osborn and other representatives of environmental and sportsmen's groups urged the commission to pass the recommendations and expand some of them.
Daly Edmunds, policy coordinator of the Audubon Society of Wyoming, said the quarter-mile buffer between noncore sage grouse leks and turbines should be increased to six-tenths of a mile.
Walt Gasson, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, said the document should include buffers for riparian areas, focus wind projects on areas already disturbed by oil and gas development, and provide guidelines to manage invasive species and reclaim lands affected by wind development.
"I do not see these recommendations as roadblocks but guardrails," Gasson said.
Contact reporter Tom Morton at (307) 266-0592 or firstname.lastname@example.org