Prairie grouse protections may threaten wind energy in Oklahoma

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Modified: August 24, 2009 at 10:27 am •  Published: August 5, 2009
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photo - In this spring 2007 photo provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department lesser prairie chickens fight in New Mexico.  AP Photo
In this spring 2007 photo provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department lesser prairie chickens fight in New Mexico. AP Photo
LUBBOCK, Texas — A little prairie grouse could give the wind energy industry big fits in Texas, Oklahoma and three other states.

Should the lesser prairie chicken become listed as threatened or endangered — and it’s close now — there would be significant restrictions on companies hoping to plant towering turbines across a five-state region believed to have some of the nation’s best wind energy potential.

"We’ve never seen the likes of this,” said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife biologist Heather Whitlaw, who is part of conservation efforts with the other states and believes the bird could be listed within two years. "Anybody who puts anything on our landscape would be evaluated in one form or another.”

Scientists believe the prairie chicken population has dropped 80 percent nationally since 1963, the result of habitat loss and fragmentation, population isolation, drought and changes in land usage.

They once numbered about 3 million across an area that stretches through eastern New Mexico, eastern Colorado, western Kansas, northwest Oklahoma, and in parts of the Texas Panhandle and South Plains. Estimates show their population now at about 30,000.

The birds’ habitat could shrink further beginning in September when 1.3 million acres in the five-state area come out of a federal land conservation program started about 25 years ago. Farmers and ranchers may then use the land as they wish — which could include crop cultivation that would eliminate more of the bird’s breeding and nesting grounds.

Their habitats also lie in areas with plentiful and strong wind resources — where energy companies are eager to build.

The companies, which have been criticized before over the number of birds and bats killed by flying into the blades of wind turbines, are being more careful about where they put wind farms, said Laurie Jodziewicz, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association.