“Perceived Problem” for Wind Power Undergoes Research

Wind power developments in the Mid-West have typically not faced nearly the same level of opposition they have encountered in other areas of the country both for environmental and aesthetic reasons. In particular, farmers seeking to diversify what they “farm” are some of wind energy’s greatest supporters by agreeing to lease their farmland for wind turbine construction. There is, however, some newfound concern from an environmental perspective over wind power projects’ impacts on a Mid-West species of prairie chicken.

The National Wind Coordinating Committee (NWCC) Wildlife Workgroup recently announced a four-year collaborative research project to study the effect of wind power on the demography and population genetics of the Greater Prairie-Chicken. The Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) is a species whose population signals the overall health of grassland ecosystems and is found in Kansas, Oklahoma and other parts of the Great Plains. Of interest to hunters, naturalists and ranch owners, Greater Prairie-Chickens are considered sensitive to habitat disturbance because of their large home ranges and because population reductions and loss of genetic diversity are known to undermine their reproduction potential. Understanding how development of wind energy resources may impact the population viability of this species is of conservation concern, and what strategies may be used to mitigate any impacts identified, is critical to future development of the wind energy resource in prairie ecosystems, says the NWCC. Funds are now in place to begin a four-year study to establish what impacts, if any, wind power facilities have on prairie-chicken demography and population genetics. Drs. Brett Sandercock and Samantha Wisely from Kansas State University (KSU) are the principal investigators. One scientist calls the issue a “perceived problem” while a representative from an environmental organization explains it has more to do with getting all the facts in order to first determine whether there is a problem or not. “Without scientifically rigorous information about wind energy’s impacts — or the lack thereof — on grassland birds, we risk acquiescing to development in areas that could suffer serious ecological damage from the presence of wind turbines,” says Rob Manes of The Nature Conservancy’s Kansas Office. “Conversely, we may also risk forfeiting climate change mitigation and other ecological benefits of wind energy by unnecessarily resisting wind power development where it is ecologically compatible.” The research will be conducted in Kansas’ Flint Hills on land where wind energy projects are proposed and on control sites where development is not planned; the experimental and control sites are currently undisturbed prairie rangeland. This venture is an important collaborative scientific inquiry to establish whether there are effects from wind structures, says the NWCC. “This collaborative research effort is unique,” said Dr. Robert Robel, an expert on prairie-chicken populations. “Very seldom do you see developers, wildlife ecologists, federal agencies, state entities and preservationists working together to examine a perceived problem,” explains Robel. “No matter what the outcome of the research effort, society will benefit from the scientific approach to the questions being addressed,” said Robel. Contributors to the project include wind developers — FPL Energy, Horizon Wind Energy, PPM Energy; NGOs — Kansas and Oklahoma offices of The Nature Conservancy; state agencies — Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks; and the federal government — DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition, wind developers DISGEN, Greenlight Energy, and Horizon Wind Energy have granted researcher access to three proposed wind sites.
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