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State Supreme Court says lawsuit over Montana wind farm, eagles should be heard in California

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BILLINGS, Montana — A dispute over a Montana wind farm's potential to harm nearby nesting eagles and other birds should be heard in California, the Montana Supreme Court said Friday, in an opinion that deals a legal setback to the project's developers.

The legal row over the Rim Rock wind farm near Cut Bank began last year, when San Diego Gas & Electric accused developer NaturEner of concealing the possibility that eagles and other birds could be harmed by the 126-turbine project.

NaturEner, whose parent company is based in Spain, filed a competing lawsuit in Montana. Its attorneys alleged SDG&E was trying to get out of an unfavorable contract and using the eagle issue as an excuse.

The Rim Rock wind farm is near an area with seven golden eagle nests and Montana's densest concentration of ferruginous hawks. Under federal law, a take permit is required for activities that could injure, kill or otherwise harm protected birds such as eagles.

SDG&E alleges federal officials recommended to NaturEner that the wind farm needed such a permit. NaturEner has denied the claim.

Montana District Judge Brenda Gilbert ruled in May that the case should be heard in Montana because of Rim Rock's importance to the economies of Glacier and Toole counties. She also issued an injunction requiring the utility to pay NaturEner nearly $2 million a month.

After SDG&E petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene, justices delivered a unanimous ruling Friday that said one of the two contracts at issue in the case required the parties to litigate their disputes in California. They added that it would be more efficient to handle related issues in a single court.

In a separate order, the high court denied SDG&E's appeal of the injunction, saying that matter was moot with the dismissal of the Montana case.

A spokesman for NaturEner said the ruling does not directly address the merit of its claims, which the company will continue to pursue in California. If the Montana injunction is voided, the company could ask a California judge to re-instate it, spokesman Paul Queary said.

SDG&E spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp said the utility was pleased with Friday's decision.

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