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Counting Chickens and Getting Good News for Wind Power

Prairie chicken
Photo by Teo on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

An environmental attorney, Philip Warburg served as president of the Conservation Law Foundation from 2003 to 2009. He is the author of Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability. Visit his website at www.philipwarburg.com 

7-year study just released by Kansas State University has found that wind turbines have no serious impacts on greater prairie chickens or their reproduction.  This discovery is monumental.

In Harvest the Wind, I explore the concerns raised by some biologists that wind turbines could disrupt prairie chicken mating and nesting.  It was thought that turbines, standing tall on the landscape, might be mistaken for trees on which predatory fowl could perch looking for food.  Similar concerns have been raised about wind power's impact on sage grouse habitats in states like Wyoming.

While KSU's Brett Sandercock has reported that there may be some avoidance of turbines by female prairie chickens, data collected from nearly a thousand tagged birds has revealed an increase in female survival rates where turbines have been installed.  One possible explanation - not studied in this survey - is that the predators themselves may be avoiding the turbines.

The KSU study may help shift the focus of biologists and wildlife managers to a more obvious and unequivocal threat to grassland fowl: the annual springtime conflagration that sweeps across much of the Kansas prairie, including 1.7 million acres in the Flint Hills.  These fires are intentionally set by cattle ranchers, eager to promote the growth of grasses favorable to cattle grazing.  On the downside, the torch-bearing ranchers who engage in "controlled burning" leave vast stretches of scorched, naked ground in their wake as they cruise the grasslands in their ATVs.  After the spring burn, prairie chickens and other grassland fowl have too little thatch to make their nests and too little cover from soaring raptors.

A few years ago, EDP Renewables (then known as "Horizon Wind") collaborated with the Ranchland Trust of Kansas in creating conservation easements covering more than 25,000 acres of mixed and tallgrass prairie in the Smoky Hills.  That important boon to grassland ecology was triggered, in part, by concern that the 67 turbines of EDPR's Meridian Way Wind Farm, located a short distance away in Cloud County, might end up harming prairie chicken nesting and mating.  The company's concerns appear not to have been borne out in this particular case, yet conservation easements by responsible wind developers can go a long way toward creating goodwill while mitigating the environmental impacts of large-scale wind projects.