Prairie chickens & wind energy

The prairie chicken has had declining populations throughout its range over the last several decades as a result of habitat loss related to all many forms of development pressure.

In December 2012 the FWS published a recommendation in the Federal Register to list the lesser-prairie chicken (LEPC) as a threatened species throughout its range (covering portions of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas). FWS found that designation of critical habitat for the species under the Endangered Species Act is prudent, but not determinable at this time.

In late June 2013 FWS announced it would delay finalizing the decision to list the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act (Act) until the end of March 2014. In the public notice related to this decision FWS Director Dan Ashe explained that comments submitted during the public comment period have “highlighted scientific disagreement regarding the accuracy of the available data relevant to the proposed listing” and as a result they believe additional time is needed to evaluate the science related to the bird’s population size and trends, as well as current and future threats to the species and its habitat.  ESA allows FWS to extend its listing decision because of concern over the accuracy of data so that the agency can solicit additional information, which it is currently undertaking.

Study demonstrates wind energy compatible with prairie chickens

Wind power development does not cause significant impacts to, and may in fact benefit, greater prairie chicken populations, according to the results of a seven-year study from a Kansas State University ecologist and his team. The researchers--led by Brett Sandercock, professor of biology--discovered that wind turbines have little effect on greater prairie chickens, and that these grassland birds are more affected by rangeland management practices and by the availability of native prairie and vegetation cover at nest sites. Unexpectedly, the scientists also found that female survival rates increased after wind turbines were installed. The results are of particular interest because anti-wind groups and individuals have long contended that wind farm development is harmful to prairie chickens and other grassland birds, while wind advocates have consistently noted that there was no scientific basis for such claims. The argument, for example, that prairie chickens would be especially sensitive to wind turbines, because turbines are tall and the birds fear overhead predators, appears to be groundless.

Climate change is a significant threat to prairie chickens

Scientists theorize that persistent drought conditions linked to climate change throughout the bird’s historic range pose a far greater threat to its continued existence.  In a peer-reviewed study, recently published in the journal PLOS One, researchers found that changes in temperature and precipitation levels could reduce nest survival rates to the point that by 2050, current populations in the two-state area of New Mexico and west Texas could not be sustained.  As one of the leading solutions that is rapidly deployable today to mitigate climate change, wind energy can also benefit prairie chickens in this regard.

Flawed data on wind development through prairie chicken’s range

As part of the initial listing determination mentioned above, which must be finalized by December 2013, the FWS sought public comments on, among other things, regulations that may be addressing the threats to the species and ongoing conservation measures for the species and its habitat, whether there are threats to the species from human activity that would be expected to increase due to the designation, and whether that increase in threat would outweigh the benefit of designation such that the designation of critical habitat may not be prudent.

AWEA’s comments focused on FWS’s flawed data in estimating the amount of future wind development throughout the LEPC’s range. Comments from AWEA also focused on the limited and weak science used in determining the impact of wind energy development on the bird, and noted that through proactive efforts – such as the Great Plains Wind Energy Habitat Conservation Plan - that present and future voluntary conservation efforts will be sufficient to preclude the need to list the LEPC.

Lesser-Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group

In order to preclude the need for listing, the state wildlife agencies of the 5-state region encompassing the LEPC historic range have come together under the auspices of the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) to form the Lesser-Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group (IWG) with the goal to develop a Range-wide Lesser-Prairie Chicken Conservation Plan. 

AWEA coordinates closely with IWG through the development of the plan to ensure that the wind industry’s impacts are properly characterized and addressed in the document, and to ensure that it is consistent with the Great Plains Wind Energy HCP.  In addition, AWEA has submitted comments on the draft document when it has been made available for public review and comment.