PAWHUSKA – On a prairie stage, cackling and fighting, drumming and dancing, male greater prairie chickens perform ancient pre-dawn prairie theater every spring morning as they attempt to curry favor with hens that visit their hilltop leks.
The traditional breeding ground show is one that the director of the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve hopes will strike a chord with donors as well.
“It’s just a treat, a real pleasure to see them,” Susan Stone said after watching the birds on a recent guided visit to a lek, or mating ground, on the preserve. From the seats of a Conservancy vehicle pulled up to within a few yards of the lek, Stone shared the view with her husband, longtime Tulsa attorney Sam Cook, Mark Hedley of Conoco Phillips and his wife, Tammy, and Conservancy Associate Director of Philanthropy Steve McGuffin. All wore smiles watching the birds in their annual courtship dances and laughed at their antics.
The “chicken tours” as preserve director Bob Hamilton calls them, are a small piece of a growing wind power storm in Osage County. The Conservancy is engaged in fighting development of two wind-power farms proposed for areas on private ground nearby. The 300-foot-tall windmills would be visible from most high points on the preserve.
Land has been leased, and ranchers and many others look forward to the related income and business development in the area. But the Osage Nation has concerns about its mineral rights under those lands, many residents express concerns about spoiling the uninterrupted sweeping prairie views, and the fate of the prairie chicken is a concern.
Hamilton smiled and raised an eyebrow at the suggestion that the two weeks’ worth of new tours came as no accident given the new wind-power issue.
“A little education never hurts,” he said. “But our Tulsa and Oklahoma City offices were looking for more fundraising events. We do a lot of fundraising and media opportunities with the bison roundup in the fall, so this was a nice complement to that.”
Like the bison, the prairie chicken is an icon of the prairie that needs protection, Hamilton said. And more donations could be helpful for the Conservancy as it seeks alternatives for ranchers who would be tempted to sign on with wind-power companies. Conservation easements could offer an alternative for ranchers looking for income. Easements are one-time purchases that, depending on the rights sold, may yield 20 percent to 50 percent or more of the land’s total value.
They’re not nearly as lucrative as a wind-power lease, Hamilton said, but conservation easements is they preserve a historic landscape and ecosystem to be passed on for generations.
The suggestion for the wind industry is to develop other areas that are not prime prairie chicken habitat and won’t spoil Oklahoma’s last sweeping prairie view.
“We’re trying not to be again’ers,” Hamilton said. “Wind is flexible; wind blows in many areas. Let’s just prioritize the areas that we are going to develop. Let’s be smart about it, make sure that it is truly green.”
The greater prairie chicken is a concern when it comes to wind energy, but it’s no spotted owl. It is not a protected species.
Not to be confused with its western high-plains cousin, the lesser prairie chicken, the population of the greater also has decreased significantly in Oklahoma. However, it still has healthy populations that support hunting seasons north through Kansas and into the Dakotas.
Hamilton speaks of them more as a canary in a coal mine. If the chickens are gone, then the prairie is no longer whole.
“They are a conservation target species for us. If you have prairie chickens, then you have a healthy, intact, prairie ecosystem,” he said. “They are a prairie species, so that implies their habitat is prairie, open, treeless, no vertical objects.”
But TradeWind Energy of Lenexa, Kan., and Wind Capital Group of St. Louis each have leased private land to build 150-megawatt wind farms and erect many tall structures. Each would have more than 100 windmills and occupy several thousand acres. Tradewind’s Mustang Run project, about 13 miles west of Pawhuska and nearest the preserve, would encompass about 16,000 acres.
Hamilton criticizes the wind industry plans as “dirty green.”
“The wind industry has done a good job of wrapping itself in green, but do you propose development in sensitive ecosystems if you’re truly green?” Hamilton asked. “There has to be a limit, otherwise why don’t we put them up along the Grand Canyon or in Yellowstone National Park?”
Tradewind’s director of project development, Aaron Weigel, agreed there are limits but rebuffed the idea that wind power is somehow dirtier by choice of location. Unfortunately, the grasslands and best wind lands occupy the same space, he said.
“We do very detailed analysis of where the wind is best, and just like their detailed understanding of where the habitat is best for prairie chickens, our understanding of where wind is best is even more detailed,” he said.
The company has studied wind in the area for five years, and a difference of just 1/100th of a meter per second in wind speed makes a difference of six figures or more over the life of a project, he said.
Besides, the areas planned for development are home to very few, if any, prairie chickens.
“We have done lek surveys for two years and haven’t found much … We heard some but haven’t actually seen any,” he said.
Prairie chicken habitat, or potential habitat, encompasses hundreds of thousands of acres in Oklahoma beyond areas sought for wind power development, he said. The prairie grouse have already disappeared without wind power development.
“Wind is not the greatest enemy of the prairie chicken; it is range management practices in general,” he said. “One has to question, how do you guide an industry on what to do when it’s not a protected species? It’s hard to have any teeth in asking for those things.”
Hamilton said federal tax incentives make the wind industry viable, so taxpayers should have a say about development. Weigel said wind power is better for the environment than other power sources no matter where it is built.
“Wind is on an order of magnitude greener than other options,” he said. “Dirty green is an overstatement. Consumers of electricity prefer the lowest price regardless of how green it is, and unfortunately we live in a world where people are not willing to pay more to say they’ve got renewable power … I would say there is lots of great conservation work, conservation easements and such, some great preservation work going on independent of trying to stop wind projects.”
Greater prairie chicken populations crashed in the 1990s.
“As to what caused that decline, nobody knows,” said Don Wolfe a senior biologist at the Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville. “There are lots of opinions, but none are substantiated.”
Potential threats from wind power are further displacement and fragmentation, he said. Fragmentation means that populations could become isolated and disappear as they are hit with severe weather, sickness or other catastrophic events. With no infiltration of new birds spreading from other population centers, the isolated group is wiped out. Genetic inbreeding also can cause problems.
“We know they avoid tall vertical structures, especially things like radio towers and power lines,” Wolfe said. “They will stay a quarter-mile away, more often a half-mile.”
Wolfe’s own radio-collar studies have shown that, given free range, only about 1 percent of the birds would chance to even cross under power lines.
But wind power in the United States still is so new there are no conclusive, long-term studies to cite when it comes specifically to power windmills.
“They avoid power poles. Hawks and owls perch on power poles and hunt (prairie chickens). There are no hawks or owls on our towers,” Weigel said.
Hamilton countered, “You can’t reason with a chicken. (The tower is) a tall, vertical structure.”
“The problem is what we don’t know yet,” Wolfe said. “In some places with wind power, the birds seem to persist, but there always is the question whether they persist out of fidelity to that area and if they are going to go downhill. The time factor is just not there for us yet.”
Greater prairie chicken
Oklahoma range is in two “fingers” into the state from Kansas’ Flint Hills country, primarily in Osage and eastern Kay counties, and in Craig, Rogers and Nowata counties. Historically ranged through eastern and central Oklahoma into Texas.
Inhabits tall grass prairie. Also located through Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and northwest Minnesota. Male displays inflated orange-yellow air sacs with sometimes purple-pink forward highlights in mating display.
Length: 17 inches
Wingspan: 28 inches
Weight: 2 pounds
Voice: Male drumming is a low hoot that sounds like air blown across a pop bottle.
Lesser prairie chicken
Oklahoma range is primarily in Harper, Ellis and Beaver counties. Historically ranged much farther south and east into north central Oklahoma. Also located in southwest Kansas and eastern New Mexico. Inhabits short grass prairie. Male displays inflated reddish-pink air sacs in mating display.
Length: 16 inches
Wingspan: 25 inches
Weight: 1.6 pounds
Voice: Male drumming has higher tone, shorter and contains more notes than that of the greater prairie chicken.
Original Print Headline: Prairie chickens cause dust-up
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