Wind Power And This Bird Get Along Fine

You know how to turn a global-warming denier who has little interest in the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels into a bird lover? Bring up the topic of wind power. Instantly the risks of population declines and extinctions, previously ignored, become important. Every bird is precious!

The shame of this is that it turns the question of how to develop more wind power – which we need to do, but need to do with minimal impact on birds (and bats and even humans) – into just another overheated ideology-underpinned food fight, with little discussion of actual science.

We mention this because — ta-da! — some science has indeed come in on at least one wind-bird dilemma: the question of wind power’s potential impact on the greater prairie chicken. After studying the issue for seven years, Kansas State University researcher Brett Sandercock has determined that “we don’t have evidence for really strong effects of wind power on prairie chickens or their reproduction.”

Sandercock said this was a bit of surprise because other studies have shown that oil and gas development does affect prairie chickens.

For their study, the researchers looked at three sites, one of which was developed into the Meridian Way Wind Power Facility, near Concordia, Kansas. This allowed the team “to observe greater prairie chickens before, during and after wind turbine construction,” according to the university. In the process, the researchers actually found that newly hatched female survival rates increased after wind turbines were installed. One possible reason: the wind turbines might have kept predators away from nest sites.

Federal regulators are contemplating [PDF] whether to list a close cousin of the greater prairie chicken, the lesser prairie chicken, as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, but the bigger bird is far from in robust health (the Sierra Club calls it a “species at risk”). From the Nature Conservancy:

The three subspecies of the greater prairie chicken have enjoyed radically different fates. The heath hen became extinct in 1932, Attwater’s prairie hen survives only in small portions of southeast Texas and is listed as Endangered in the US, and the greater prairie chicken, though threatened and isolated in much of its range, remains numerous enough to be hunted in four states. Once inhabiting the wide plains of the central US in vast numbers, the bird has fared poorly as its grassland habitat has been converted to other uses.

The full Kansas State study is available online as a PDF.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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