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A habitat could be on the line: Sparks igniting over site for power project and Lesser Prairie-Chicken

For nearly three years, Sue Selman has been closely watching plans for development of new high voltage transmission lines in southwest and south-central Kansas.

Unlike many who see development of the lines as a potential boon for the wind industry and the state, the northern Oklahoma ranch operator is watching with trepidation, and working hard to influence where the lines will eventually go.

She’s not alone. State wildlife officials and conservation advocates also plan to weigh in on the lines siting when a proposal finally reaches regulators.

That’s because general plans for the 345-kilovolt route, known as the V-Plan and including a connecting line into Oklahoma, appear to take the line through prime nesting and breeding habitat for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken in both states.

With an estimated two-thirds of the unique bird’s original habitat already eliminated by development, officials warn that further encroachment could place the bird on the nation’s endangered species list.

“I’ve been trying really hard to keep this from happening,” said Selman, owner of the 14,000-acre Selman Ranch near Buffalo, Okla. “Prairie-chickens are part of my business. I have an eco-tourism and hunting business. My family has been here 105 years. So I’ve become very involved in this.”

Others contend, however, wildlife won’t be significantly impacted and that the potential for wind development in the region trumps those concerns.

The players

ITC Great Plains, a Kansas subsidiary of a Michigan company, and Prairie Wind Transmission, a joint venture between Westar Energy and Electric Transmission America, both filed applications with the Kansas Corporation Commission to build new high capacity transmission lines in south central Kansas linking new and proposed wind farms to the state’s existing power grid.

Under a compromise worked out last June, each entity agreed to build a section of the line. Prairie Wind will build lines from Wichita to Medicine Lodge and from somewhere in Comanche County south to the Oklahoma border, while ITC will build the line from Medicine Lodge to Comanche County and another north to Spearville. The Spearville line will tie into the one that goes to Nebraska.

ITC will build the substation linking the lines at the bottom of the V, and going into Oklahoma, so placement of that substation will determine where all the lines go.

When she first saw the general route map several years ago being considered by the Southwest Power Pool, Selman said, she saw it was “going right through my ranch.”

She began discussions then with some of the entities involved and believed the line would move to the east. But recent indications are it could still pass very close to, if not across her land.

But Selman isn’t the only one interested in, or fighting over, placement of the lines.

At least one wind development company with significant investment in the region, Chermac Energy Corporation, wants it to follow the initial plan, with the Comanche substation located within miles of the Oklahoma border, arguing that will save developers – and thus ratepayers – $20 million to $30 million, and that habitat in the area has already been destroyed by development.

The chicken

Once hunted as a commercial game bird, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken has been a candidate species for the endangered species list since 1995, according to the National Audubon Society.

Thousands of bird watchers visit habitat of the grassland grouse every spring, like Selman’s ranch, when males gather to perform courtship displays. During their dance, the birds inflate reddish pouches of skin on the side of their necks – creating a distinctive sound – and raise specialized feathers on the back of their necks.

From 1963 to 1980, distribution of the species in the five states it inhabits declined by 78 percent, to about 10,500 square miles, according to Audubon. The remaining birds are found in fragmented pockets of habitat scattered across Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, with Kansas sporting the largest population.

Maps developed by several organizations, including Cornell University and the University of Kansas, show Meade, Clark, Comanche and Kiowa counties in Kansas and Woods, Harper, Beaver and Ellis counties just across the border into Oklahoma are among the birds’ primary range and nesting area, most on privately owned land.

A number of studies over the years, including some by Kansas State University biologists, have demonstrated that the birds’ habitat is easily disturbed by development.

“From our studies that we’ve done in southwest Kansas, looking at productivity of the population, nesting, chick survival, all those things, we’ve found – in rough numbers – that power lines were avoided by 90 percent of nesting prairie-chickens,” said Robert Robel, professor emeritus at KSU. “They will avoid nesting in habitat that is within 400 yards of a power line. That means you’re looking at an 800-yard-wide swath, with 400 yards on either side of the line.”

It’s not just the site of the power line towers that are avoided, Robel noted, but the entire length of the line itself.

“If you take that much area that’s not useable for nesting, it’s just lost,” Robel said, because nesting areas are already so limited.

“The problem is, we’ve already lost about 60 percent of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat in western Kansas,” Robel said. “It was converted to center pivot irrigation, housing, country clubs, what have you. What is left is very valuable for sustaining the population. If lines run across really good habitat, it’s bound to have an impact.”

The threat of threatened

Experts don’t know at what point the population will be unable to sustain itself, Robel said.

“It’s not cut and dried,” he said. “If we start losing more habitat, Fish and Wildlife has no option but to list it as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.”

If that happens, said Brad Loveless, director of biology and conservation at Westar Energy, it will impact the transmission line project.

“U.S. Fish and Wildlife is watching the way folks make decisions like this, to see if people are being careful to avoid impacts,” Loveless said. “If it appears they (line developers) are not giving it significant consideration until it’s listed, they (Fish and Wildlife) will be forced to list it. They’ve said if they get a sense (the line developers) are not paying attention, they may list it faster and force them to pay attention.”

“If it gets listed in the middle of the process, the rules will change,” Loveless said. “There’s a formal process to deal with the loss of habitat. … We try to have a well-rounded discussion on the costs and benefits. In this case, two of the costs factoring into decisions by the regulating bodies are not only the line’s length, but the cost of delays that will necessarily come as environmental issues get complicated. If there are extra requirements, whoever builds the line, it will create delays. And there is some urgency to get the lines built. … In the long run, a longer route may actually be faster and it may be cheaper.”

The urgency is both to meet state-mandated requirements for providing a percentage of electricity from alternative sources and to open national markets for Kansas-produced energy, primarily from wind.

As alternative energy gets a push nationally, there’s a race to provide the markets first. New lines are necessary both to offer a connection for wind farms and to take that energy to major metropolitan markets outside of Kansas.

It’s necessary to know where the transmission lines will be in order to know where to locate large commercial wind farms.

Location debate

Chermac Energy, based in Edmond, Okla., operates the 94.5-megawatt Sleeping Bear Wind Farm in Harper County, Okla., and is working to develop additional farms in the region.

The company, which has filed testimony in the ITC/Prairie Wind case, wants the Comanche County substation built near the Oklahoma border, between U.S. 183 and the blacktop road leading north to Protection.

“We think the lines need to be as close to the north/south line from Spearville to Woodward, Okla., as possible, because of the possible wind regime and the wind farms already under lease and agreement,” said Jamie McAlpine, Chermac president. “We’re working on development in Meade and Clark counties, as well as south in Harper County, Okla.”

On the Oklahoma state line, wind energy development opportunities in Meade, Clark, Ford, Kiowa, and Comanche counties “would generally be adequately covered with no more than 30 miles to any one substation on the SPP System,” McAlpine said.

The north/south line doesn’t impact the bird’s habitat, McAlpine contends, because development in the region has already eliminated nesting there.

“We respectfully disagree with Mrs. Selman’s opinion,” he said. “The route being suggested puts it a minimum three miles away from any existing active prairie-chicken leks, which is more than ample distance from the birds, according to the experts.”

While state maps do indicate a narrow north/south corridor along U.S. 183 without nesting leading into Oklahoma, the southwest corner of Comanche County and the southern third of Clark County are dense with the bird’s habitat. Also, the proposed lines running diagonally from Medicine Lodge and from Spearville to the Comanche substation, if it is on the border, would likely have to cross through habitat.

Thus alternative proposals are to go directly west from Medicine Lodge and then south, or to go south from there into Oklahoma, near Alva, and then across.

Chermac Energy objects to a proposed location 14 miles north of the border, near the intersection of Comanche, Clark and Kiowa counties that would avoid the densest nesting areas, because it would be too far from proposed wind developments. There are at least three requests in the Southwest Power Pools interconnection queue, the company notes, which could be negatively impacted by that location.

“It comes down to a basic economic question. If you spend millions of dollars to build this line, where is the benefit for it to occur to be paid for? For ratepayers, it’s long term. It’s about 15 percent longer,” McAlpine said of the northern location.

“In this case, the purpose of the line is to foster wind development,” Loveless agreed. “That’s one of the concerns about running through the Red Hills – it necessarily invites wind to be close by. They pay a million (dollars) or more per mile to connect to that. You want to minimize the cost by being as close to transmission as you can be. If we put it in the wrong spot – we as an industry – it becomes very difficult to serve those new wind developments. That’s one of the things the Kansas Corporation Commission is aware of. You not only have to consider the normal stuff in evaluation of the best route, but also the ultimate purpose of this line.”

Other considerations

Prairie-chickens aren’t the only environmental issue in the region that could impact the siting, however, said Rob Manes, director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy of Kansas.

“Just from an ecological standpoint, the other concern about the Barber, Comanche county line is that it has one of the state’s highest populations of bat hibernacula,” Manes said, which is where bats hibernate. “They’re really concentrated along the county line, for the full length of it. The geology there created several caves in the region. But the populations are already in not that good of shape.”

The danger to bats is not from the transmission lines themselves, but from the wind turbines they are intended to attract.

“Bats have this unusual tendency, they’re used to flying close to objects,” Westar’s Loveless said. “There’s a huge pressure drop across the faces of a turbine blade, since the tip speed might be 150 mph. Bats that get close to the blades die, not because of collisions, but because of the pressure drop, which burst the capillaries in their lungs.”

Barber and Comanche counties are also in the center of the state’s north-south corridor for Whooping Crane migration.

The Red Hills and Gyp Hills in the Barber and Comanche county regions actually have a lot of sensitive species, said Murray Lauban, chief of environmental services with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

“There are caves down there that support bat species,” Lauban said. “We also have a lot of sensitive fish down there, some that are listed. And some birds, and some snakes as well, that are on the state list, not the federal. It’s the geology of the site. There’s a lot of native grass there still, also, similar to the Flint Hills. While everybody’s heard of the Flint Hills, few have heard about the Red or Gyp Hills.”

“It’s really hard (to site lines) in this state,” Lauban said. “If you go to eastern Kansas, there’s a lot of sensitive species, but also the Flint Hills. There are also playa (lake) complexes, and center pivots come into play for irrigation. Environmental is only one of several issues considered when you do this type of work. Economic development and a lot of other statewide issues have to be considered too. There is room for this. It just takes a lot of planning to come to pass.”

Decision time

Officials at ITC Great Plains declined to discuss any specific routes.

“The only thing I can tell you is we’re in the process of studying routes and there is no proposed route at this time,” said Joe Kirik Sr., a communications specialist with ITC Holdings Corp. “The study is ongoing.”

“ITC Great Plains is working with interested stakeholders, including appropriate environmental agencies, to identify and evaluate their concerns prior to proposing a reasonable route for this critical electric transmission project for the Kansas Corporation Commission to review,” Kirik said.

Once the company has decided on a route, it will conduct public open houses, inviting all landowners along the proposed route to allow their input.

“We come in with alternatives, definitely,” Kirik said. “It can be several different routes, or a combination of various routes,” he said. “I can’t predict how many we’ll have for the V-Plan. The goal is to have alternative routes and work with landowners on identifying the most reasonable one.”

The company is working under a timeline of filing its route plan with the KCC early next year.

That puts public open houses “somewhere around late fall or early winter, in a November time frame,” Kirik said. “That will give us time to adjust to the input and work on a final route.”

Prairie Wind is following a similar timeline, targeting January to submit its plan to the KCC, Loveless said. Once it reaches the regulatory agency, it can’t be significantly changed.

“What we’re constantly trying to do is balance the public interest, in terms of rates, and also the environmental cost,” Loveless said. “There’s usually some middle ground that is acceptable to most people. In this case, there are some real sensitive areas and it makes a lot of sense to do your best to avoid those. But ultimately, where the line goes will come down to the Southwest Power Pool and, in Kansas, the KCC.”

WANT MORE?A detailed interactive map prepared for Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks which shows the Lesser Prairie-Chicken’s range and pinpoints probable nesting sites (leks) – as well the locations of existing wind farms, transmission lines and other sensitive wildlife areas in the state – can be found at: http://www.kars.ku.edu/maps/naturalresourceplanner/.