A small wild chicken may stand in the way of Oklahoma harvesting billions of dollars from wind energy developers, a state legislator said Thursday.
Population numbers of the lesser prairie chicken, which is under evaluation for the endangered species list, have been declining for decades, long before companies started building wind turbine towers and transmission lines in western Oklahoma. But conservation officials say the towers and lines pose another hindrance to the lesser prairie chicken’s ever-shrinking natural habitat.
“This is a stumbling block that could cripple the wind industry in Oklahoma,” said Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell.
He said the Southwest Power Pool projects that Oklahoma, which ranks among the top five or six wind-power producing states, could be the top wind-energy state by 2016.
Blackwell, who presented an interim study on the issue before the House Wildlife Committee, said he feared concerns about the lesser prairie chicken — which in 2008 was moved by federal officials from No. 8 to No. 2 to being considered an endangered species — could derail wind energy development in the state.
“My main focus is to make sure that we solve both problems — increase the population of lesser prairie chickens which in turn allows the continued development of wind farms and transmission lines in Oklahoma,” he said. “Probably three to four billion dollars in development hinges on this problem being solved.”
Richard Hatcher, director of the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Department, said his agency will continue to work with wind power companies.
“We are not trying to push anybody out of Oklahoma,” he said.
Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. has donated about $8 million to help mitigate the loss of habitat caused by the development of two wind farms in Woodward County, Blackwell said. The money is based on a Wildlife Conservation Department formula that it takes about $600 per acre to go from bare dirt to habitat. Some of that money has gone to buy land in Beaver and Ellis counties as a sanctuary for the threatened birds, which are about the size of a small domestic chicken.
But other companies aren’t willing to pay that amount of money when wind projects can be built just miles away in Texas or Kansas.
Shawn Lepard with Novus Windpower in Guymon said the company wanted to build its first project in Oklahoma, but investors and potential purchasers of the power didn’t want to pay the added cost. As a result, he said, the company built its wind turbines just across the state line in Texas. Residents in Guymon can look to the south and see the towers, which are about 150 feet tall.
Greg Adams, of Buffalo, who serves as a consultant to wind-energy companies, told the House panel wind-power developments are determined by cost. Northwest Oklahoma and the Panhandle have high wind speeds, but investors say they can develop those projects at a lower cost in Kansas and Texas.
Russ Horton, a research supervisor with the Wildlife Conservation Department, said the mostly brown, lesser prairie chicken can be found in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado.
He said about $23.5 million has been spent in the last five years to protect the lesser prairie chicken in the state. Biologists estimate about 50,000 breeding birds remain in the country.
While the lesser prairie chicken has declined in numbers in four of the states, it is doing well enough in Kansas that the state has a hunting season on the birds, Horton said.
Adams said he believes the lesser prairie chicken can coexist with the wind industry. He said he has seen lesser prairie chickens, which fly about 3 feet off the ground, flying under turbine towers; their primary predator, the chicken hawk which flies higher and dives downward at their prey, doesn’t like the turbulence caused by the turbines, he said.
“When actual studies come out, we’ll see that they get along just fine,” he said.
Until then wind projects will be delayed, he said.
“This is work that should have been done 10 years ago when the first wind turbines were going up,” Adams said.
Horton said lesser prairie chickens may be seen on wind farms, but studies have shown that they avoid vertical structures.
“If you’re not producing little prairie chickens pretty soon you don’t have big prairie chickens,” he said.