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Prairie chicken mating dance threatens Texas projects

Iberdrola SA and E.ON AG's turbine dreams for the windswept Texas Panhandle may be stymied by the mating rituals of the lesser prairie chicken. Wind-power developers such as E.ON are scouring sagebrush and grasslands for the presence of ground-dwelling chickens that could impede turbine construction plans. Once plentiful in the southern high plains, the bird has a high priority for listing under the Endangered Species Act, which would put at risk where as much as $11 billion in turbines that are part of the U.S.'s renewable-energy push can be built.

Iberdrola SA and E.ON AG's turbine dreams for the windswept Texas Panhandle may be stymied by the mating rituals of the lesser prairie chicken.

Wind-power developers such as E.ON are scouring sagebrush and grasslands for the presence of ground-dwelling chickens that could impede turbine construction plans. Once plentiful in the southern high plains, the bird has a high priority for listing under the Endangered Species Act, which would put at risk where as much as $11 billion in turbines that are part of the U.S.'s renewable-energy push can be built.

Federal protection for the chickens will hamper Texas's plan to add 5,500 megawatts of wind power in the region by 2013, a 60 percent increase for the state. President Barack Obama wants to double all U.S. energy from renewable sources such as the wind and sun in three years to reduce dependence on imported oil and the greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for global warming.

"The windiest parts of some of these states seem to be the areas that still have bigger concentrations of prairie chickens," E.ON chief development officer Patrick Woodson said in an Aug. 13 interview. "We need to plan for a worst-case scenario, which would be a listing."

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Iberdrola SA and E.ON AG's turbine dreams for the windswept Texas Panhandle may be stymied by the mating rituals of the lesser prairie chicken.

Wind-power developers such as E.ON are scouring sagebrush and grasslands for the presence of ground-dwelling chickens that could impede turbine construction plans. Once plentiful in the southern high plains, the bird has a high priority for listing under the Endangered Species Act, which would put at risk where as much as $11 billion in turbines that are part of the U.S.'s renewable-energy push can be built.

Federal protection for the chickens will hamper Texas's plan to add 5,500 megawatts of wind power in the region by 2013, a 60 percent increase for the state. President Barack Obama wants to double all U.S. energy from renewable sources such as the wind and sun in three years to reduce dependence on imported oil and the greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for global warming.

"The windiest parts of some of these states seem to be the areas that still have bigger concentrations of prairie chickens," E.ON chief development officer Patrick Woodson said in an Aug. 13 interview. "We need to plan for a worst-case scenario, which would be a listing."

There may be as few as 10,000 lesser prairie chickens left in the U.S. from an estimated 3 million in the 18th century, their habitat reduced by power lines, encroaching civilization and invasive trees that have cut the bird's forage area to five states including Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Many of the tufted, short-flight birds are still found in the panhandle, Texas's northern tip that also boasts the best prospects for wind power, said Heather Whitlaw, a biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Spring Mating Dance

Electric-generating wind turbines inhibit the bird's spring mating rituals, Whitlaw said on Aug. 11. Males jump, fight and show off bright yellow eye combs and reddish esophageal air sacks as they court females in an elaborate dance. The chickens have learned to avoid such mating displays around structures like turbine towers or utility poles where predators may perch.

"It's kind of like spring break," Whitlaw said in an interview. "The boys are showing off what they got and the girls are looking at what they want to choose."

Bilbao, Spain-based Iberdrola is planning to install 500 megawatts near Pampa, Texas, about 350 miles northwest of Dallas. The project could require construction of more than 300 turbine towers.

The company spent two years looking for lesser prairie chickens, Andrew Linehan, director of wind project permitting for Iberdrola, said in an Aug. 10 interview.

‘Has Some Risk'

"Any project, whether it's been developed before or after the prairie chicken has been listed, has some risk," Linehan said.

Iberdrola and E.ON have yet to build any turbines in the area. Transmission lines to bring power from the panhandle to homes and businesses are expected to be completed by 2013, said Brian Almon, director of electric transmission analysis for the Texas Public Utility Commission.

It costs about $2 million in the U.S. to install 1 megawatt of wind power, according to an Energy Department report. Using that estimate, Iberdrola's Pampa project may cost about $1 billion, said company spokesman Paul Copleman, and the cost of adding 5,500 megawatts in the panhandle could reach $11 billion.

Roads Threaten Birds

Last year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said new roads and livestock grazing were a "high" threat to the species everywhere they are found and that the birds are "increasingly isolated and vulnerable." That raises the odds the agency will take the next step toward preserving the chickens, which are about 15 inches long, said Marty Tuegel, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based biologist for the Fish & Wildlife Service.

It's illegal in the U.S. to kill an individual or disturb the breeding grounds of any endangered species. The agency has not made a final decision on extending federal protection to the chicken, Tuegel said.

Meanwhile, the Texas legislature in 2005 made it easier for wind and transmission line developers to build projects in the panhandle, Almon said.

"This is a new problem for lesser prairie chickens," Mark Salvo, director of the sagebrush sea campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a Santa Fe, New Mexico-based environmental group, said in an interview. "Hopefully the agency will proceed to add the species to the list as soon as possible."

‘Years of Delay?'

Listing the chickens will lead to "years of delay," Linehan said without detailing the costs. "In every case projects will be confronted with a big morass of uncertainty."

The conflict between wind power and birds is not unique to Texas. In Wyoming, state officials recently designated "core habitat areas" for the greater sage-grouse where developers must prove they won't impact the birds before they build. The greater sage-grouse is also a candidate for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

In 1999, the National Audubon Society denounced Enron Corp.'s plan to build a 53-turbine wind farm near a condor habitat around Gorman in Southern California. The project, dubbed a "condor Cuisinart" by the New York-based conservation group, was never built.

‘We've Walked Away'

"We constantly have to deal with wildlife concerns," Woodson said. "We've walked away from some coastal sites because we didn't think some of the avian risks were acceptable."

The Fish & Wildlife Service recommends a five-mile buffer between turbine towers and prairie chicken mating grounds or leks. The American Wind Energy Association, an industry lobby group in Washington, said the buffer was calculated based on the impact of oil and natural gas projects on the chickens, and that more study on the direct effect of wind turbines is needed,

"Right now there are wind-energy developers who choose not to follow that five-mile lek buffer," Whitlaw said. "If the species were listed, it's likely the service would require that five-mile buffer."

A five-mile setback would be "very restrictive," said Laurie Jodziewicz, manager of siting policy for the wind industry lobby group. Such a buffer would place 78 square miles of potential development space off limits for every lek.

Five-Mile Setback

"We would like to understand the science that came with that five-mile buffer," Jodziewicz said in an interview. "While there may be a setback that's appropriate, that's awfully big."

Duesseldorf, Germany-based E.ON plans two projects in the panhandle with a total of 1,800 megawatts of generating capacity. The company is evaluating the "environmental risks," including the presence of leks, Woodson said.

"If it becomes a listed species, it could add years onto the development window," Woodson said. Potential U.S. developers in the area include T. Boone Pickens's Mesa Power LLP. Total U.S. wind generating capacity is 29,440 megawatts, including 4,000 megawatts added this year, Jodziewicz said. One megawatt is enough to power about 800 U.S. homes.

A mandatory five-mile buffer would "have a tremendous impact" on wind development in Texas, Linehan said.

Part of the problem is finding the birds in the first place. Lesser prairie chickens are seen only during the spring mating season and typically live spread out in small groups, Whitlaw said.

"It's complicated and it's wrapped up in money and this ‘green revolution' that we have going on," Whitlaw said. "If the bird gets listed, wind energy is not the only thing on the landscape here. Cotton, grains, oil and gas, all of those things also will be evaluated as to their potential impact."


Source: http://www.bloomberg.com/ap...

AUG 26 2009
http://www.windaction.org/posts/21910-prairie-chicken-mating-dance-threatens-texas-projects
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