A plucky little bird in northwest Oklahoma — known for its comical mating dances in which it patters around like a jittery wind-up toy — has found itself pitted against an unlikely environmental foe. Huge power-generating wind turbines are expected to pop up all over the lesser prairie chicken's habitat in coming years, and biologists say the development could push the birds onto the endangered species list or even into extinction. "We're very concerned they could go into a nose dive that they wouldn't recover from,” said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation at the National Audubon Society. That's not because the birds fly into the turbine blades. "They can't really strut their stuff anywhere where there's something tall nearby,” Butcher said. Lesser prairie chickens usually won't go near wind turbines — much less breed in their midst, according to information gathered through radio collar tracking. The stocky birds see the turbines and transmission lines as hideouts for their predators, namely hawks and eagles. Their already limited habitat is expected to be further fragmented by the wind industry, pushing them into small groups that have low chances for survival, biologists and wildlife experts said. The situation has environmentalists scratching their heads as they wrestle with their desire to protect a vulnerable species and promote renewable energy. Can the lesser prairie chicken and the wind industry co-exist on the plains? Experts say it will be tricky since no regulations protect the bird.
The rise of wind powerMaps of wind power potential overlap almost exactly with the lesser prairie chicken's habitat in Oklahoma. Eighty-seven of the 96 known lesser prairie chicken breeding circles in Oklahoma are within five miles of "excellent” wind farm territory, according to a federal report. The birds mate only in those locations, which are called leks. The mating circles are at relatively high elevations where the birds' dances and calls can easily be seen and heard by potential mates, said Russ Horton, a supervisor and wildlife biologist at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Biologists fear wind farm development will scare the prairie chickens away from those important spots. "Without those leks, there's not going to be baby prairie chickens in the next generation,” Butcher said. Bird attendance at mating ceremonies already is decreasing for a variety of reasons, Horton said. Thirty-five to 40 birds used to attend the mating ceremonies. Now, six birds is more the norm, he said. Scientists also fear wind farms will push the birds into smaller and more vulnerable groups. A group of prairie chickens requires about 25,000 acres to survive and be healthy, said Jay Pruett, director of conservation at the Nature Conservancy in Oklahoma. Don Wolfe, a senior wildlife biologist at the Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville, has been putting radio collars on lesser prairie chickens for 10 years so he can track their behavior. "As you see isolation happening, you can pretty much count on overall population rates going downhill,” Wolfe said.
Looking for protectionWith no regulations to protect the birds, conservation groups are looking for alternatives. The Endangered Species Act offers federal protection. While the lesser prairie chicken isn't an endangered species, the bird is a "candidate species” for listing. "It basically means that we don't have the time and financial resources to work on that one yet,” said Elizabeth Slown, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Albuquerque. Pruett said an endangered species listing would just cause "a royal bucket of headaches for everybody involved.” More effective would be a conservation easements program, he said. That would entail paying landowners not to let wind farms go up on their property. It will be difficult to make it worth a landowner's while, though, Pruett said, since wind leases are becoming more profitable. The Nature Conservancy is also looking to buy up private land to make a preserve for the lesser prairie chicken, Pruett said. But that likely will prove too costly, also. Land leases for other energy forms, like oil and natural gas, must be approved by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. No similar process exists for wind, and conservationists would like to see protecting wildlife become a mandatory part of wind leases.
The lesser prairie chicken will be added to the endangered species list if wind development goes as planned, conservationists say. PHOTO PROVIDED
An expanding avian rarityBird watchers are said to come from all over the world to see the lesser prairie chicken's bizarre springtime mating rituals. The birds gather in a circle and proceed to move around frantically — making a noise that sounds like it should come from a spaceship. They prop special feathers up on their heads so that they look like jackrabbits, and puff out red and yellow bags on the sides of their necks to attract mates. For wildlife biologists, the ceremonies have come to represent a sacred piece of a vanishing grassland ecosystem. The ceremonies have become smaller and increasingly rare in western Oklahoma. The lesser prairie chicken lives only in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. In those areas, their grassland habitat has decreased to just a sliver — 8 percent — of what it once was, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife report. Fewer than 3,000 lesser prairie chickens were thought to be living in Oklahoma as recently as 2000, but the state Wildlife Department says it doesn't have the time or money to do adequate surveys. What is known is that prairie chicken breeding grounds are turning up empty. Population density estimates have been going steadily down since the 1980s. Wind farms, with their 300-foot turbines, are expected to exacerbate an already crisis-level situation, wildlife experts said.
Wind energy expandingThe concern about the lesser prairie chicken comes at a time when wind energy is a priority for the Oklahoma economy and for policymakers looking to wean the country off of fossil fuels. The Southwest Power Pool says more than 14,000 megawatts worth of wind farms are planned for Oklahoma. That means between about 5,000 and 10,000 wind turbines are expected to go up, based on average turbine capacities. The U.S. Department of Energy says wind energy could supply 20 percent of national energy needs by 2030. That means at least tripling the rate of wind turbine building, the department says.
Plains in declineWith or without wind farms, the western grasslands and their inhabitants are disappearing fast. Habitat fragmentation is to blame, biologists say. Much of the change has happened in recent years, with 78 percent of that decline occurring since the late 1960s, according to a report by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Part of the problem is agriculture, since nearly every piece of farmable land is being used. Cities also are spreading out into the once-open plains. "Prairies are the fastest disappearing and the least protected of all the major habitat types in the world,” said Jay Pruett, director of conservation at the Nature Conservancy in Oklahoma. "That includes forests and deserts and salt water and fresh water — all of the habitats.” Fences also contribute to many lesser prairie chicken deaths. The birds can fly at 60 mph when they're chased, and they often dart into shrubs, not noticing that a fence may be on the other side.