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Oklahoma panel studies lesser prairie chicken habitat

OKLAHOMA CITY – Conservationists and wind power developers told a legislative panel on Thursday that more study is needed to determine the impact of wind turbines and electrical transmission lines on the habitat of the lesser prairie chicken.

The state is on target to become the nation’s top producer of wind-generated electricity by 2016, Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell, told members of the House Wildlife Committee. But development would be threatened if loss of habitat forced the government to place the lesser prairie chicken on the endangered species list, Blackwell said.

Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation wildlife biologist Russ Horton said the number of birds in the state is not known but that there are far fewer in their historic habitat in northwestern Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Panhandle than there were in the 1960s.

“The long-term trend is a decline,” Horton said. “If things don’t turn around we’re potentially looking at that listing.”

The lesser prairie chicken is a stocky, ground-dwelling bird found in parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Horton said Kansas has more of the birds than the other four states combined and is the only state that still has a hunting season for the lesser prairie chicken.

The bird’s natural habitat is prairie grasslands and they avoid vertical structures like wind turbines and transmission lines that might provide shelter to hawks and other predators.

Greg Adams of Harper County, who operates a wind energy consulting firm, said the impact of wind development needs to be studied further. Adams said he has seen lesser prairie chickens gather beneath wind turbines, which he said hawks avoid because of their massive spinning blades.

Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co., Oklahoma’s largest electrical utility, has donated about $8 million to help the wildlife conservation agency mitigate the loss of habitat caused by the development of two wind farms in northwestern Oklahoma. The money was used to purchase privately owned land nearby for new habitat.

In all, about $23.5 million has been spent in the last five years to protect the lesser prairie chicken in the state, according to Horton.

Conservationists said land purchases that permanently protect the bird’s habitat and private landowners who create habitat on their property could help increase the bird’s numbers and keep if off of the endangered species list.

“If it is listed as an endangered species, nobody wins,” said Clay Pope, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.

But Adams and other developers said costs that drive up the price tag for wind farms may force them to build in another state, including Texas. Currently, there are no rules requiring wind energy developers to pay mitigation costs to protect lesser prairie chicken habitat, officials said.

Shawn Lepard of Novus Windpower said his company is planning a $750 million, 320 megawatt wind farm south of Guymon in the Oklahoma Panhandle on a site that includes lesser prairie chicken habitat. It would cost $9 million to mitigate the loss of the habitat, a cost financiers may not pay, Lepard said.

Richard Hatcher, director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, said his agency wants to work with developers and encourage them to invest in the state.

“There is a partnership developing,” Hatcher said. “We are not trying to push anybody out of Oklahoma.”