The Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. wants to lease or buy from the state Department of Wildlife Conservation a portion of the Cooper Wildlife Management Area in northwest Oklahoma for its power-generating wind turbines.
It’s curious that state wildlife commissioners would consider such a proposal when state wildlife officials have been clamoring that more public hunting land is needed in Oklahoma.
Most Oklahoma hunters and anglers are now paying an additional $5 each year for a Legacy Permit, with the money earmarked for land acquisition.
So why lease or sell a portion of an already-existing wildlife management area that is heavily used by quail hunters?
The state Wildlife Conservation Commission, the eight-member governing board of the state Wildlife Department, has formed a sub-committee of four commissioners to study the OG&E offer.
On it is longtime Wildlife Commissioner John Groendyke of Enid, who also sits on the board of directors for OGE Energy Corp., the parent company of OG&E.
Groendyke said Thursday he would abstain from any vote on the OG&E proposal. He said he was appointed to the sub-committee because the Cooper WMA is in his district and, as commissioner, was instrumental in developing Cooper and the other WMAs in northwest Oklahoma.
But a strict interpretation of OGE’s own “Code of Ethics” policy, posted on the energy company’s Web site, would seem to suggest that Groendyke shouldn’t even be on the sub-committee.
A portion of that policy listed under conflicts of interest reads, “when serving as a director or member of an outside organization or serving in public office, members shall abstain from any discussion or voting affecting OGE and make it clear why they are abstaining.”
Groendyke said he understands the perception and why some would question whose interest he is serving.
“I will sure look at that,” Groendyke said when informed of the OGE ethics policy. “If I need to get off the committee because it causes some people heartburn, I will.
“Everybody on that commission and in the (wildlife) department knows I am on the OGE board and that I have had an interest in wind farm projects.
“But the last thing I want to do is to make people feel uncomfortable and that I have a conflict one way or the other.”
Gil Broyles, spokesman for OGE, said the conflicts of interest policy posted on the company’s Web site “applies to employees and not members of the board of directors specifically.”
Groendyke said the offer from OG&E wasn’t his idea and that he hasn’t formed an opinion on whether the state Wildlife Department should pursue it.
Wind energy has been a priority for OGE chairman and chief executive officer, Peter Delaney, for the past couple of years, and the Cooper WMA is close to the energy company’s Centennial Wind Farm, he said.
Delaney made the proposal to lease or buy Cooper in a letter to Greg Duffy, director of the state Wildlife Department. In the letter, Delaney said several wind developers are trying to secure land for wind projects across Oklahoma, including OG&E.
The letter did mention Groendyke, as Delaney wrote that the commissioner “has been kind enough to introduce me to the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the extent of your land holdings and future goals.”
At issue for state wildlife commissioners is to what extent would numerous wind turbines disturb wildlife on Cooper? And what kind of policy would they be creating if they choose to lease Cooper for a wind farm?
No doubt, other WMAs in western Oklahoma such as Beaver, Sandy Sanders and Packsaddle will be targeted for wind energy as well.
Sue Selman of Buffalo, president of Save The Prairie and an owner of the historic Selman Ranch north of Woodward, is against any wind turbines on Cooper.
“This is 16,000 contiguous acres of prime public land paid for by thousands of hunters and taxpayers,” she said. “There is only two percent of public land available in Oklahoma, with precious little in northwest Oklahoma, and we can ill afford to lose any.
“By leasing or selling public land for wind development, we are opening the door for further industrial development of all our public lands.”
The 16,000-acre Cooper WMA is located northwest of Woodward, in the heart of quail country, although state wildlife officials say deer and quail don’t seem to be bothered by wind turbines.
Northwest Oklahoma also is one of the few places where the lesser prairie chicken still exists. Oklahoma once had a firearms season on prairie chickens, but the population of birds has dwindled to the point that the hunting season was closed more than a decade ago.
Habitat loss is to blame for their decline, and wind farms in areas where prairie chickens still roam will result in more loss of their habitat. Prairie chickens stay away from wind turbines because they see vertical structures as a potential raptor roost.
State wildlife officials say there are prairie chickens on Cooper but no “leks” or booming grounds.
The Selman Bat Cave, the site of popular summer bat watches, also is nearby, and there are concerns about the mortality rate of migrating Mexican free-tailed bats from wind turbines.
“I don’t see it having much effect on hunting,” Groendyke said of possible wind turbines on Cooper. “The main issues will be the prairie chickens and the bats.”
Broyles said acquiring Cooper for a wind farm is not a high priority for OG&E.
“Not to deny that it wouldn’t be a good fit, but we have a lot of other options out there,” he said.
Perhaps wildlife commissioners could justify leasing or selling Cooper to OG&E if the state Wildlife Department would receive enough money to buy more land in northwest Oklahoma with even better wildlife habitat.
Selman, though, thinks it would be bad wildlife management.
“Placing wind turbines on the Cooper Wildlife Management Area will fragment and destroy a large quantity of (wildlife) habitat,” she said. “It’s a gross injustice to our part of the state, to wildlife and to hunting.”
By Ed Godfrey
3 February 2008
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