By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The Obama administration is evaluating a plan to allow a 200-mile corridor for wind energy development from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico that would allow for killing endangered whooping cranes.
The government's environmental review will consider a permit sought by 19 energy developers that would permit turbines and transmission lines on non-federal lands in nine states from Montana to the Texas coast, overlapping with the migratory route of the cranes.
The permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would allow the projects to "take" an unspecified number of endangered species. Under the Endangered Species Act, "take" is defined as killing or injuring an endangered species
The government can issue permits to kill or injure listed species with no penalties or risks of lawsuits to developers who agree to craft conservation plans.
According to federal officials, the large scale of the review will help streamline the permitting process by lumping many projects into a single study.
The Obama Administration has been working to speed development of renewable energy projects by improving coordination among various state and federal agencies.
Environmentalists, however, say the "fast track" process results in inadequate environmental reviews.
The Administration's latest wind energy proposal raises concerns among wildlife advocates because the developments would overlap with habitat imperiled birds such as whooping cranes rely on, including the Central Flyway, a migratory path that cuts through North America's midsection between the Arctic and the Tropics.
The leading cause of death for the nation's last historic population of whooping cranes, which stand at 5 feet and have a wingspan of more than 7 feet, is overhead utility lines, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.
Conservationists say the Central Flyway's population of 280 cranes -- which make a refueling stop along Platte River in Nebraska along with tens of thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese -- would suffer with the loss of just a single adult breeding bird.
'RAREST OF BIRDS'
"I can hardly imagine what the government is thinking. Whooping cranes are the rarest of all the cranes, the rarest of American birds," said Paul Johnsgard, author of several books on the cranes and professor emeritus of ornithology at the University of Nebraska.
Fish & Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said wind energy is crucial to the nation's future economic and environmental security, which is why the agency is paving the way for a renewable energy project with an undetermined number of wind turbines generating an unidentified amount of electricity along the 200-mile-wide corridor.
"We will do our part to facilitate development of wind energy resources, while ensuring that they are sited and designed in ways that minimize and avoid negative impacts to fish and wildlife," he said in a statement.
Whooping cranes, North America's tallest bird, once numbered in the tens of thousands before hunting and habitat loss caused their populations to plummet to 16 in the 1930s.
The cranes, which annually migrate thousands of miles from wintering grounds in coastal Texas to breeding and nesting areas in Alberta, Canada, were at the forefront of an emerging wildlife conservation movement in the 1960s that gave rise to a series of landmark laws aimed at preventing extinctions of rare and declining animals.
Whooping cranes were among the first creatures added to an early version of the Endangered Species Act in 1967.
Few other populations of whooping cranes exist in the United States, with an introduced flock in central Florida that does not migrate and a fledging group in Wisconsin that biologists have trained to fly to the winter refuge of Florida by following ultralight aircraft.
Attempts to establish crane populations elsewhere, including Idaho and Colorado, have failed.
Government scientists have not yet determined how many whooping cranes, other threatened and endangered birds and imperiled bats would be killed or otherwise harmed because of the wind project, said Amelia Orton-Palmer, conservation planner with the service.
"It's so early in the process we won't begin to speculate on what that might be," she said.
(Editing by Nichola Groom and Jerry Norton)