Prior to October 2015, Ann-Marie McLaughlin said her 36-acre property in Calhan, Colorado, was teeming with prairie dogs. However, that all changed when the Golden West Wind Energy Center became fully operational last October.
The Golden West Wind Energy Center, also located in Calhan, consists of 145 453-foot tall industrial wind turbines and a 29-mile above-ground transmission line -- all owned by NextEra Energy Resources.
“The prairie dogs around here were very abundant,” McLaughlin said. “We had probably 200 on our property. When they turned the turbines on, the very next morning the prairie dogs were totally gone.”
Additionally, McLaughlin said there are no more coyotes or burrowing owls, which she and her family loved to watch. There are no more predators in the area, she said.
In their place, McLaughlin said her property is now overrun with cottontail and jackrabbits. “I have watched what has happened in my little ecosystem here; and overnight, everything changed,” she said.
Steve Forrest, the Rockies and Plains program coordinator for Defenders of Wildlife, said he has studied prairies dogs for 30 years and their comings and goings in eastern Colorado is common, often due to plague. There is a constant, variable level of plague at any given time; and, once in a while, there is an outbreak that wipes out a colony, he said.
Most recently, a large plague outbreak occurred in Baca County, Colorado, in early spring 2015, but Forrest said an outbreak could pop up anywhere. When that happens, various species of rodents, like squirrels, mice, rats and prairies dogs are significantly impacted, he said.
“When a plague outbreak like that happens, those rodent species are very susceptible and die off, while other species, like rabbits and coyotes typically handle it well,” Forrest said. Add to that the wet spring that occurred, and the eastern plains end up with tall grasses and weeds, which make for ideal feeding and hiding places for rabbits, he said. The rabbits likely moved in because the prairie dogs left, he said.
“The burrowing owls left because the prairie dogs left,” Forrest said. That is not surprising since the owls prey on the prairie dogs, he said. The coyotes likely left because the prairie dogs left, but also because of the increase in human activity related to the construction and maintenance of the turbines and transmission lines, Forrest said.
The wind farm itself is probably not the cause of a complete loss of a prairie dog colony, he said. Prairie dogs are pretty robust and not terribly bothered by the noise and activity of wind development, he said.
Although the Defenders of Wildlife organization has a group that studies renewable energy and its impacts on wildlife, Forrest said they have not studied the impacts of wind turbines on animals like prairie dogs or coyotes because they focus more broadly on imperiled species, like sage grouse. Additionally, he said he is not aware of any complaints similar to the aforementioned missing animal patterns in Calhan.
While it is unknown if prairie dogs are directly affected by wind turbines, studies show that other species are influenced. According to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative 2009 report, “The State of the Birds,” the potential for biologically significant impacts continues to be disconcerting, as the populations of various species have begun to overlap, with proposed wind energy development. “Energy development has significant negative effects on birds in North America, including habitat loss, reduction in habitat quality, direct mortality and disruption,” the report states.
According to an article written by Erin F. Baerwald, Genevieve H. D’Amours, Brandon J. Klug and Robert M.R. Barclay and published in the magazine “Current Biology” in 2008, barotrauma is tissue damage to internal air-containing structures, like the lungs, caused by a rapid or excessive pressure change.
The following is quoted in the article:
“The decompression hypothesis proposes that bats are killed by barotrauma caused by rapid air-reduction near moving turbine blades. We report here the first evidence that barotrauma is the cause of death in a high proportion of bats found at wind energy facilities. We found that 90 percent of bat fatalities involved internal haemorrhaging [sic] consistent with barotrauma, and that direct contact with turbine blades only accounted for about half of the fatalities.”
McLaughlin said she has felt physical effects that she cannot attribute to anything other than the turbines, including dizzy spells and swollen lymph nodes. “I am seriously considering moving because of this,” she said. “If it has affected the ecosystem like this, what effect is it having on us?”