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Just when we thought that we were headed in the right direction, we’re reminded that humans, with our limited minds, just can’t see the whole picture. At least, not until the things that we’ve put into motion start going wrong.

Attwaters Prairie Chicken

In our search for clean, renewable, eco-friendly alternative “green” energy, wind power sounds like a ‘no-brainer’. It’s free, plentiful (in the right spots) and limitless. It leaves no toxic residue and needs little more than tall turbines to produce it.

With all this going for it, how can using wind energy possibly have a down side?

Well, if you’re a lesser prairie chicken on one of the last remnants of unbroken grassland expanse in Oklahoma, there is a definite downside. . . Or if you’re a sea eagle in Norway . . . Or a bat, an endangered whooping crane, or a kittiwake. Actually, the list goes on and on.

It turns out that the best places to put the new generation of ‘farms’ – wind-turbine farms – are open, expansive, and, of course, windswept; just the places where prairie chickens (and other critically endangered grassland species) are trying to hold on to existence.

According to Don Wolfe, Senior Biologist of the G.M. Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville, OK (in an interview with Bridget Wood, in the June 2009 issue of   The Current), “Lesser prairie chickens do the best in large expanses of native prairie (some smaller parcels of agricultural land within are okay), with at least some shrub component (primarily sand sage-brush or shinnery oak), with few other fragmentary factors such as roads, transmission lines, trees, fences, etc.

Lesser Prairie Chicken

“Historically, lesser prairie chickens had a considerably larger range in Oklahoma, but due to various factors (including those mentioned above), have been constrained to portions of only a few counties in northwestern Oklahoma where those fragmentary forces have been kept to a minimum. It is unfortunate for the prairie chicken that these remaining areas of suitable habitat are often prime wind development areas.”

Just what’s causing the problem?

It’s not only collisions with the turbines themselves, although that is certainly a factor. Harder to combat is the damage done by the transmission lines, the roads being built to provide access (just think about how many acres a road ruins in terms of MILES of habitat cleared), the disruptive human presence and associated activity, fences and – something that may never occur to those not familiar with grassland species, the appearance of features taller than the indigenous grasses and low shrubs with which the creatures evolved.

The mere presence of a towering wind turbine can cause ‘avoidance’, by prairie-dwelling species, of otherwise suitable habitat areas, further fragmenting and stressing the remaining, struggling populations. (Pruett, Patten and Wolfe, Conservation Biology, Avoidance Behavior by Prairie Grouse: Implications for Development of Wind Energy.)

Even all this wouldn’t be as severe a problem if not combined with other threats; Eastern red-cedar encroachment and the proliferation of fences and roads into once pristine grassland areas. (Wolfe)

With these delicate ecosystems under attack from so many fronts, the large-scale installation of wind-turbines might be the ‘nail in the coffin’ for wildlife on the brink.

It’s not just about species here in the US. In a report released last year, ‘Pre- and post-construction studies of conflicts between birds and wind turbines in coastal Norway’,  “Monitoring of bird mortality within the wind power plant area takes place on a weekly basis assisted by special trained dogs. So far in 2008 (as of December 1) 9 white-tailed sea eagles (WTSE) and 7 willow ptarmigans have been recorded. Another 4 common snipes, 2 hooded crow, 2 golden plovers, 2 greylag goose, one grey heron, one kittiwake, one herring/greater black-backed gull, one merlin and one red-shank have been collected; i.e. a total of 31 victims so far in 2008.”

Thirty one birds may not sound like a lot, considering the real benefits of wind power (less reliance on fossil fuels, fewer carbon emissions, sustainability, etc), but as technology and output from wind turbine ‘farms’ increases, so will the number of turbines and all the associated activities. As the numbers increase and demand for power from these farms rises (although the ability of the ‘farms’ to significantly reduce our need for other energy sources is limited {Wolfe}), fatal interactions between wildlife and wind energy developments will also increase, with dire consequences for fragile species like the prairie chicken.

Complicating matters still further is the incentive for land-owners to make money from their property by allowing the building of such ‘farms’. Even sympathetic land owners would have a tough time turning down that extra income, especially in this time of economic hardship, and may even turn to illegal vandalism of sensitive areas in order to ‘de-list’ their tracts from protected status.

It’s a sad fact that greedy, or desperate, humans will find a way around legislation in order to be able to sell their land for development and exploitation.

Landscape transformed by 'Green Energy" development.

This is what happened in parts of North Carolina in 2003, when the extremely rare red-cockaded woodpecker was found on some ancient forested land. In an attempt to preserve this priceless biological treasure, such lands were classified as protected from development or logging by the Endangered Species Act. In a shameful display of short-sightedness and arrogance, property owners deliberately cut down vital, irreplaceable old forests – crucial nesting and feeding sites for the imperiled woodpecker – so that the acreage was no longer suitable for the birds in question and could no longer be part of the protected area.

All this so owners had the ‘option’ of profiting from the sale of the land or timber. (See more about imperiled ancient forests here.)

Tragically, due to numerous factors such as soil structure, soil microbes, primitive plant life etc., that only occur in old-growth, ancient forests, such damage is . . . irreparable.

So how can we keep from repeating this mistake as we enter the alternative energy era?

The best solution may be financial incentives to keep open grasslands (and other critical habitats) pristine. Reward the land owner for NOT allowing turbines to be built in critical habitats (Wolfe).

Other remedies would be easements, as well as intensive efforts to set aside as much critical grassland as possible for protected areas. Wind turbines and wildlife really cannot co-exist, so provisions to safeguard biodiversity are crucial.

Why should we care about prairie chickens?

Charming, diminutive birds, with a unique silhouette and attractive coloring, most of us, playing ‘Cowboys and Indians’ as children unwittingly paid homage to the prairie chicken as we bent at the waist and patted our mouths, circling in our ‘Indian camps’. That’s because the prairie chicken came to symbolize the Great Plains and the indigenous peoples who admired them. The prairie chicken was so important to some Native Americans that they mimicked its booming, whistling and stamping courtship ritual in their own dances, turning the grouses’ mating display into the very fabric of American mythology.

With less than 1500 birds left, every loss has a huge impact on the population, and therefore the genetic viability, of this unique little grouse.

To this day the prairie chicken is symbolic of the last, great, awe-inspiring, unspoiled vastness of America. Let’s not lose this important link to our living historical roots.

As a final thought for those feeling discouraged, hopeless or frustrated because even ‘green’ technology is having negative impacts on wildlife: that was my feeling when I learned of this, too — a sense of,  “Okay, I give up, now what?”

But there ARE solutions. Take a look at the vertical shaft turbine being developed. It’s a safer alternative than propellers.

Image: Comparison. Illustration: Environmental Technologies LLC

This new technology is in its infancy and we just have to be alert and grow into it responsibly. I have faith that, with just a little encouragement, humans can do that.

Special thanks to Mr. Don Wolfe, Senior Biologist G.M. Sutton Avian Research Center.