Years later, Deerfield Wind impact on bear habitat in question

MONTPELIER — In testimony given to lawmakers Thursday at the Statehouse, representatives of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department said the 30-megawatt, 15-turbine Deerfield Wind Farm on Green Mountain National Forest land has affected the habitat of black bears in that region.

That message, offered to House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, was a portion of hearings regarding a rewrite of Act 250, Vermont’s land use law that was designed to keep the state rural and environmentally friendly, but too often prevents developers from getting projects completed.

Catherine Gjessing, general counsel for the Department of Fish & Wildlife, told the committee that 36 acres of prime bear habitat were sacrificed to allow the industrial wind project to come to fruition.

Michael Bielawski/TNR

SAVE THE BEARS: Catherine Gjessing, general counsel for the Department of Fish & Wildlife, told the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife how 36 acres of bear habitat was lost due to the development of an industrial wind project.

The Deerfield project has a long history. Its initial planning phases began over 15 years ago, and it didn’t become an operational power plant until December 2017. The delay was because opponents of the project challenged its development all the way to federal court.

Gjessing said her department was also against the project during its state-approval process with the Public Service Board.

“We opposed the project on the basis that it would significantly imperil or destroy wildlife habitat and bear habitat,” she said. “The Public Utility Commission did not, frankly, rule in the way that the department would have preferred. They issued a decision in which they approved the certificate of public good for the project. They found, based on our testimony, that there were 36 acres of bear scarred beech [trees] that would be removed as part of the project.”

Gjessing added that the commission required that the developer, Avangrid Renewables, secure alternative bear habitat to make up for the loss.

“They basically said you have to go out and find and conserve 144 acres of bear scarred beech,” she said.

She explained that her department ultimately decided to take charge of this task to ensure that the bears got proper land and resources. She said they’ve closed on two projects within the general area of the turbines, one in Straton and another in Jamaica. In all, over 800 acres were secured.

Gjessing said the impacts of the lost acreage are still being assessed: “It’s true that 35 acres will always be gone, at least as long as that wind project is in existence, but we think that we did make lemons out of lemonade, if you will, and tried to conserve some really good parcels.”

She added that her department has about $600,000 remaining in funds allocated to purchase additional bear-friendly territories, and they are still working on that.

While for this project it was established that the developer must mitigate for the lost bear habitat, in many cases the developer will argue against compensating for wildlife impacts.

John Austin, director of the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, reiterated that leaders at the department believe the project never should have happened.

“This is a unique case in many respects, and we cannot overstate the fact that it was the agency’s position initially that the project shouldn’t have been permitted because the character and condition of the habitat was so regionally unique that no impact should be allowed,” he said.

Department of Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter said without mitigation agreed upon during development, Act 250 is the default safety net to protect wildlife.

“I think in the absence of mitigation, the Act 250 folks would be in a position of deciding, ‘do we deny this project outright that is already made every effort they can make to avoid or minimizing impact, or do we let it go with no additional compensation or offsets.'”

A 2015 study by Jaclyn Comeau of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department details exactly what bear scarred beech means to the health of the local bear population.

“Black bears exhibit fidelity to beech mast production areas, feeding in them year after year when mast is abundant,” the abstract states. “Clusters of mast bearing beech which are remote from human developments are particularly important feeding areas, so maintaining connectivity to such areas is a vital element of maintaining habitat for a viable black bear population. Clusters of beech exhibiting significant levels of bear feeding activity are afforded legal protections under Act 250 and Act 248 in Vermont.”

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North. Send him news tips at bielawski82@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

Images courtesy of Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and Michael Bielawski/TNR

8 thoughts on “Years later, Deerfield Wind impact on bear habitat in question

  1. Well our flatlander fascist overlords are not phased in the least by
    killing the alive in the womb you sure didn’t expect much sympathy
    for the bears and birds and bats.. It’s under the bus for all Yaz..
    in the name of Warming sacrifice…. Youz taxpayers are next you
    know… Upgrading our nuke plant in Vernon would have alleviated the
    needed Myanesq version of volcano sacrifices of our wild life…Can we
    sue for this destruction of OUR Wild life???? Where’s Teejay on this????

  2. Sad is…. how politicians and developers (carpetbaggers) abuse laws to accomplish whatever they desire. This ideology is what has made VT what it is today. Sad is…. they believe that the bear habitat destroyed can so easily be fixed by protecting other areas. When the industrial machine wants those lands, it and its puppet politicians will again secure access. None of this would be an issue if these carpetbaggers and their political cronies hadn’t shut down Yankee Vernon on false premises. If VT had two nuclear power generating stations, it wouldn’t have to buy electricity from anyone. VT would have green power. I don’t consider windmills and solar to be anymore green than nuclear. No matter what, electric power will always have a negative impact on the environment.

  3. Here’s the video of John Austin of ANR speaking about the bear habitat that was destroyed by the Deerfield Wind project. https://youtu.be/mlJJQBP5y6E

    Vermonters for a Clean Environment is the organization that appealed the NEPA permit and sued the USDA/USF&W Service in federal court. As with every other experience in court where wind projects have been appealed, “it was as though we weren’t even there.” Massive political pressure brought Sheffield, Lowell, Georgia Mountain and Deerfield Wind into existence. Good science did not prevail.

    • Thank you Annette for your efforts to prevent the destruction of wildlife habitat by the wind industry. Corporate pre-eminence has overtaken laws designed to preserve the natural environment. Good science is not enough to protect us.

  4. Wind and solar SHOULD be under Act 250.

    This project broke my heart. We troutfish that area.

    There were 28,000 bear scared beech trees in that wilderness project area. It was a remote area where bears could do their thing without becoming habituated in ANY way to human activity. Not so any more.

    When the land was being gradually set aside for the National Forest (back in the beginning) the idea was to dedevelop that area.

    The first Industrial Wind Facility on National Forest land….and it happened in Vermont. No big surprise. All stupid ideas are brought to Vermont first. Because it is known that you can make any lamebrained idea a reality in Vermont. A testament to the type of people that presently run this state.

    Boggles my mind how the employees of the National forest pushed for that project. They even temporarily brought in a forest manager by the name of Coleen Madrid who it appeared to me was simply here to give the final approval for that horrid project.

    35 acres? The effect of that useless project reaches out further than the 35 acres that were clear cut. The question is…how far are bears impacted. How far away from the edgeline are bears deciding to NOT put themselves at risk by trapping themselves up in a tree while they break limbs out so that they can feed on the nuts. I suggest to you a bear needs it to be darn quiet and safe feeling before they will climb a tree to feed.

    Vermont could have lived without that variable, intermittent…useless power. But that won’t stop anybody. There are about 30 other identified “suitable” sites on NF lands in Vermont. All somebody has to do is roll in….pull out the logic, arguments, and justification used for this project and they will be a shoo-in for another project just like it.

  5. Birds and bats are written off as collateral damage? “certificate of public good” There wasn’t a more practical, economic way of providing the “public good”?

  6. If all those “do gooder” folks in Montpelirt had done their due diligence BEFORE they exempted these monster wind farms from Act 250 as it’s currently written this bear problem never would have occurred. Now they all sit around scratching their heads thinking, now what do we do? Actually the remedy is quite simple, place both wind and solar under the preview of Act 250!!!! Never happen.

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