Worries about the future of the local ecosystem have cropped up as debate swirls around the proposed Ellis County wind farm. A more specific target for these concerns has been prairie chickens – both lesser and greater prairie chickens make their homes in Kansas prairies.
Studies conducted in southwest Kansas by Robert Robel, professor emeritus at Kansas State University, have determined that nesting lesser prairie chickens will avoid human activity and tall structures, Robel said.
“Our data showed that they won’t nest within 400 yards on either side of a power line,” he said. “They won’t construct a nest there, even if it’s good habitat.”
The study also suggested the hen also won’t nest within a couple hundred yards of an improved road, less than 600 yards away from a house, or less than 1,000 meters from a natural gas compressor station, he said.
This is a concern because lesser prairie chickens were petitioned to be on the endangered species list in the 1990s, Robel said.
Lesser prairie chickens reside only in the southwest part of the state – Ellis County is more likely to be home to greater prairie chickens, which are more populous but similar in characteristics, Robel said.
“The birds have the same kind of behavior and look almost identical,” he said.
The lesser prairie chicken studies, conducted from 1997 to 2003, did not collect data pertaining to wind development projects, but the concern is the 389-foot tall turbines would disrupt the nesting behavior of these prairie grouse.
K-State biology professors recently received funding for a four-year research project to study the effects of wind power on the genetics and makeup of the greater prairie chicken population.
According to a press release, the study, which began in 2006, is coordinated by the National Wind Coordinating Committee, and funded by wind developers, state agencies and the federal government. The study will be conducted in the Flint Hills on land where wind energy projects are proposed and on control sites where development is not planned.
Furthermore, while there was a certain amount of avian mortality in an early California wind farm, bird mortality is “very minor” with today’s technology, Robel said.
“If you compare the number of birds, domestic cats will kill many, many more birds than wind farms will ever think about killing,” he said. “There is concern about bat strikes, flying mammals, and that seems to be more of a problem.”
As a general rule, over the scope of North America, there are as many bats in an area as there are birds, said Jerry Choate, director of Sternberg Museum of Natural History.
“There’s bats all over out there,” Choate said of the proposed Ellis County project site. “Where wind farms have been studied after they were constructed, you find lots of dead bats and birds lying around underneath them.”
Choate is concerned about the engineering of these massive windmills, and Monday endorsed letters to six engineering schools in the country asking if someone on the faculty would be willing to address the issue, he said.
“I realize that it’s absolutely essential that we somehow reduce our carbon footprint and cut back on consumption of fossilized fuels, and wind energy has tremendous potential for helping to do this,” Choate said. “On the other hand, my way of thinking is what’s really needed is some engineering work. If wind turbines could be re-engineered so they don’t have such a catastrophic effect on wildlife, I’d back them 100 percent.
“I think there’s a real problem here, and nobody seems to be addressing it,” he said. “It strikes me we’re rushing helter-skelter into a solution for a problem without really looking at its effects.”
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Many years ago, there was one group of lesser prairie chickens near the proposed project site, said Randy Rodgers, a biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Today, the potential project site is home to a “modest” population of greater prairie chickens – the breeding range likely consists of 40 or 50 birds, he said.
“I think a more normal population would be in the 100 to 150 range,” Rodgers said. “The reason I say that is the drought was so intense last year that the grassland bird population was really poor, and so we think we’re kind of at a low average right now.”
Based on Robel’s research, concerns about disrupted nesting and brood-rearing behavior are legitimate, Rodgers said.
“I think there’s a very good chance of avoidance based on research that (Robel’s) students did in southwest Kansas,” he said. “That was with lesser prairie chickens and these are greater, but I don’t think behaviorally they’ll be any different.”
However, any potential effects on nesting behavior could take a number of years to develop, he said.
“I believe the concerns about prairie chickens are valid, but we still have much more we need to know, need to learn,” Rodgers said. “We’re not going to have hard answers on that for several years, anyway.”
The speculation, however, that winged predators would avoid the project, causing rodent populations to boom, is “highly unlikely,” he said.
“There’s going to be a significant number of predators that continue to use that area,” Rodgers said. “I would certainly not expect the rodent populations to explode or anything like that.”
KDWP doesn’t take a stand regarding specific projects, but the agency has adopted an official position regarding all wind development in the state of Kansas. This statement, available at www.kdwp.state.ks.us, states that KDWP is supportive of the concept of wind energy.
According to the document, however, wind-power facilities should be sited on previously altered landscapes, away from extensive areas of intact native prairie, important wildlife migration corridors and migration staging areas.
“We would prefer to see wind farms on already developed sites,” Rodgers said. “In other words, cropland or sites with a great deal of oil or that sort of thing, because these are already, in terms of ecosystems, degraded.”
Some of the proposed Ellis County project area meets that criteria, but about 15 square miles of the project site is rangeland, he said.
“The simple fact that there are prairie chickens out there suggests that places are still good quality, functioning, grassland ecosystems,” Rodgers said. “It is a point of concern because … prairie chickens are a flagship species of grassland birds.
“They’ve got charisma, and if you can find prairie chickens on a grassland you can bet there are a lot of other grassland birds there,” he said.
The project’s parent company, now Iberdrola Renewable Energies, hired Western Ecosystems Technology to conduct prairie chicken studies in the project site to examine this concern, which was pegged during the company’s phase one screening report, psaid roject manager Krista Gordon.
These studies were conducted during the month of April, said Rhett Good, a WEST research biologist.
Data, which Good declined to disclose, has been collected and passed on to Iberdrola.
“State agencies don’t want us giving out exact locations of the leks,” he said about the areas where the birds gather during mating season. “We can say we’ve found a few leks in the area, which isn’t a surprise because there’s some suitable habitat in the area.”
By Kaley Lyon
Hays Daily News
15 May 2007