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Wind and wildlife: Panhandle power - More research needed on effect of wind turbines on ecosystems

As the wind-energy industry continues to grow, state officials are developing guidelines to help wildlife and wind turbines coexist on the High Plains, a first step that may serve as a blueprint for the rest of Texas. "We're trying to get Panhandle-specific guidelines that would include the lesser-prairie chicken," said Kathy Boydston, program leader for wildlife habitat assessment at the state Parks & Wildlife Department.

Wind turbine dot the landscape encroaching of natural habitat for Panhandle wildlife. State legislators are working on new guidelines for future wind farm projects.

As the wind-energy industry continues to grow, state officials are developing guidelines to help wildlife and wind turbines coexist on the High Plains, a first step that may serve as a blueprint for the rest of Texas.

"We're trying to get Panhandle-specific guidelines that would include the lesser-prairie chicken," said Kathy Boydston, program leader for wildlife habitat assessment at the state Parks & Wildlife Department. "We'll see how that works or not, how developers use them. Then we can develop some for other eco-regions, mainly trying to tailor things, saying, 'You really need to focus on this.'"

Policymakers are looking at several areas of concern, including playa lakes, the wetlands that dot the plains from Texas to Canada. The problem is knowing where to take evasive action to avoid putting spinning turbine blades between birds and a scarce water source.

Most of the lakes only hold water on a temporary basis, and the wet periods can be separated by dry spells that last for months.

"Playas are seasonal," Boydston said.... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

Wind turbine dot the landscape encroaching of natural habitat for Panhandle wildlife. State legislators are working on new guidelines for future wind farm projects.

As the wind-energy industry continues to grow, state officials are developing guidelines to help wildlife and wind turbines coexist on the High Plains, a first step that may serve as a blueprint for the rest of Texas.

"We're trying to get Panhandle-specific guidelines that would include the lesser-prairie chicken," said Kathy Boydston, program leader for wildlife habitat assessment at the state Parks & Wildlife Department. "We'll see how that works or not, how developers use them. Then we can develop some for other eco-regions, mainly trying to tailor things, saying, 'You really need to focus on this.'"

Policymakers are looking at several areas of concern, including playa lakes, the wetlands that dot the plains from Texas to Canada. The problem is knowing where to take evasive action to avoid putting spinning turbine blades between birds and a scarce water source.

Most of the lakes only hold water on a temporary basis, and the wet periods can be separated by dry spells that last for months.

"Playas are seasonal," Boydston said. "You can potentially tell where the depression is, but it might be five years before you have water in there."

Areas that look like they might be playas can make for hard choices.

"We've done projects with a row of turbines where we skipped some," said Walt Hornaday, president of Cielo Wind Power.

"But at the same time, you see cows standing in there eating grass."

There are no regulations governing the placement of wind farms except on federal land. The state is working with wind energy developers to craft acceptable recommendations.

"If we were to say, 'Put turbines a mile away,' and it wouldn't be that far, that's going to constitute a big problem," Boydston said. "The problem with putting any kind of buffer in is there is only one research paper indicating there might be some displacement of wildlife, but we don't have funding to do any studies."

Local birds and small mammals are drawn to the playas for water and vegetation, but another concern is for the migratory birds that follow a major north/south flight path along the playas.

"That's one of the biggest gray areas," Hornaday said. "Killing migratory birds is a federal offense, but cars hit them, they run into buildings, your cats eat them - it happens every day."

Ground hazards

The spinning blades of wind turbines are not the only concern of those looking at the effect of wind on wildlife habitat.

The population of the lesser-prairie chicken has declined more than 90 percent since the early 1900s, according to the Nature Conservancy, landing it on the candidate list for protection under the Endangered Species Act. About 32,000 of the prairie chickens remain in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado.

The main concentration of the species in the Panhandle is in the northeastern corner of the region with some near the New Mexico border in the southwest Panhandle.

Research indicates the birds avoid areas near man-made structures like roads, buildings and towers, and their habitat has become fragmented by building until they only occupy one-tenth of their original range.

Transmission towers and power lines that would come with wind development could be a problem because those are places where raptors might roost while hunting, scaring the prairie chickens into even smaller tracts of grassland, according to the Playa Lakes Joint Venture Web site.

But the possible effect is an open question.

A June draft report by the Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says the effect of wind development on prairie chicken habitat and breeding behavior is "poorly understood and is an area of much needed research."

The bigger picture

That national advisory committee is working to come up with federal guidelines for choosing wind-farm locations under a charter that expires in October.

"It's a methodology for developers to work through," said Boydston, a member of the group. "It will be a series of questions on several tiers."

Answers to some of the questions would address what the site and wildlife conditions there look like and what might be the effect of construction and subsequent operations.

The bottom line is there are still opportunities to gather more information.

"It is in the interests of wind developers and wildlife agencies to improve these assessments to better avoid and minimize the wildlife impacts of wind energy development," according to the current version of the draft report.

"The committee recommends that research that improves predictions of pre-construction risk and estimates of post-construction impacts be a high priority."

"We are trying to standardize how we look at wind energy," Boydston said.

Sidebar:

The Playa Lakes Joint Venture divided the Panhandle and South Plains into blocks containing 36 square miles of land and looked at how much of the surface was covered by playa lakes. At 5 percent, the wetlands cover almost 2 square miles out of a 36-square-mile total.

The lesser-prairie chicken: The population of the lesser-prairie chicken has declined more than 90 percent since the early 1900s, according to the Nature Conservancy, landing it on the candidate list for protection under the Endangered Species Act.


Source: http://www.amarillo.com/sto...

AUG 9 2009
http://www.windaction.org/posts/21647-wind-and-wildlife-panhandle-power-more-research-needed-on-effect-of-wind-turbines-on-ecosystems
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