One of the most interesting and endearing sights on the Texas prairie is the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. During mating season, males strut and dance, puff up orange air sacks on their necks, and raise horn-like feathers. Maybe you’ve never heard of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken but the odds are you will.
The bird with the unfortunate name and “Dancing with the Stars” mating ritual is perched on the ledge of the endangered species list.
Listing it would entangle future wind energy projects in a thicket of federal regulations.
Wildlife officials say it could delay them for years, and drive up costs of green energy.
“A listing is going to absolutely change the playing field,” says biologist Heather Whitlaw. The US Department of Fish and Wildlife created her job to solve the Prairie-Chicken dilemma before it’s too late – if it’s not already too late.
The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife framed the Lesser Prairie-Chicken on a wanted poster on its website. Wanted alive, that is. The caption reads, “Have you seen this bird?”
The bird even got its own website recently: lesserprairiechicken.org.
“Chickens hide because lots of things like to eat them,” says state biologist, Sean Kyle, as we pick our way through prairie grass on a vast preserve near Lubbock. Kyle counts Prairie-Chickens or tries to. There used to be millions. Now experts fear there may be no more than 30,000 left in the whole country.
Humans are gobbling up their habitat.
“The current range,” says Kyle, “has shrunk about 90 percent over the historic range over all five states.”
Kyle says the birds still survive in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado.
But they require thousands of acres of uninterrupted prairie to breed. Unfortunately, they’re afraid of tall structures, especially power lines, because that’s where their predators perch and pick them off.
“The ones that live avoid those areas,” says Kyle. “They might be chickens, but they do learn.”
So Kyle says all the new transmission lines planned for wind power will rock the chickens’ world, chopping it up into blocks too small to support the species.
“The grass might still be there,” he says, “but if the power lines are there, the birds will avoid it.”
If you’ve driven across west Texas recently, you can see the problem.
Thousands of giant wind turbines swing their arms in a Prairie-Chicken nightmare.
Right now, Texas gets only 6 percent of its power from wind energy.
But a mere three years from now, the state hopes to have enough new transmission lines to deliver 20 percent of our electricity from wind turbines. What no one wants to see is the Lesser Prairie-Chicken become the next spotted owl – the endangered bird that touched off a war between the logging industry and environmentalists in the northwest.
Gray County judge, Richard Peet, says a listing would be devastating for his county.
He fears higher property taxes, less development and less oil and gas exploration, if the bird goes on the endangered list. “And it comes back to this little bitty bird,” he says. “No one even knows how many there are.”
“It’s very urgent,” says Heather Whitlaw. “It’s very urgent.”
State and federal biologists are working with developers and land owners to preserve the chicken’s habitat and keep the bird from interfering with development.
They say there is enough time and space for the bird and wind power to co-exist. But a Colorado conservation group recently sued the federal government to get it listed as quickly as possible. Federal biologist Whitlaw believes it will happen, and that there’s a lot more on the line than cheap, green energy.
“They’re like the canary in the coal mine,” says Whitlaw. “If we don’t have Lesser Prairie-Chickens, it means we don’t have intact functioning prairie.”
And that, she says, would be an ominous sign for many other species that call the Texas prairie home.
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