OKLAHOMA CITY – Watching the population of the lesser prairie chicken in northwestern Oklahoma continue to dwindle, Sue Selman said her concerns spread from the environmental aspect of losing an important species to the financial impact it could have on her and the region.
“I think every species is important, but this is a cornerstone species that has been an important part of this habitat for thousands of years,” said Selman, who runs Selman Guest Ranches, an agritourism business north of Woodward that often specifically attracts guests to view the birds. “People come on the land to photograph and bird watch, but the lesser prairie chickens have been disappearing very quickly.”
With the lesser prairie chicken facing the growing threat of being put on the endangered species list, lawmakers, conservation groups and industry representatives agreed Thursday that more cooperation and research is needed to protect the species.
During a House of Representatives interim study meeting, the officials also pledged that the group’s environmental work will not come at the expense of the wind turbine industry, which is believed to pose a threat to the chickens if not managed correctly.
“One of the things we want to do with the problem of the lesser prairie chicken is that we don’t stop or inhibit the spread of wind energy,” said Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell, who requested the study. “The development of wind energy in the Panhandle and Oklahoma means money for rural school, local school, money for land owner and it means business opportunities for businesses, so we are looking at options for a win-win situation.”
The problem, said Russ Horton, a research supervisor with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, is that many causes, including the fragmentation of the Great Plains grasslands, have led the lesser prairie chicken population to drop in the area since the 1960s. He said in 2008, the species was moved to a higher priority to be considered for the endangered species list, and if situations continue to deteriorate it could end up on the list.
Another potential treat to the species, which also is found in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas, are wind turbine and transmission lines. The tall structures can disrupt the natural habitat of the lesser prairie chicken since they avoid those areas, Horton said.
However, Horton said the exact impact that the turbines and lines have on the drop in population still are unknown because no major local studies have been conducted. He said there are studies ongoing in other states and dealing with other species, but one that specifically examines Oklahoma’s impact on the bird is one of the research needs.
No restrictions currently are in place that would bar wind energy firms from developing in areas where there are habitats for lesser prairie chickens. But industry representatives said possible extra costs or other regulations that could follow the endangered species label could cause businesses to look for options out of state.
Greg Adams, a technical consultant for wind farms, said the industry is driven by cost and finding locations that are best for wind speed.
“If there are additional costs that are showed for one state or another one, as a developer we don’t necessarily care if we are across the Oklahoma line in Texas, in the Oklahoma Panhandle or in Texas,” he said. “Anything we do needs to be a multistate solution to this so we don’t drive investments from one state to the other just because of the costs they (would) incur.”
Since lawmakers and industry members agreed adding mitigation costs for wind turbines to be built in the state is not an attractive option, they said they want to work on voluntarily partnerships. These include voluntary easements for conservationists to protect the land, cost-sharing projects between agencies and private landowners and potentially awarding grants or tax credits for those that make improvements to their property that benefit the lesser prairie chicken.
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