Technology may yet save the chickens. Those would be the lesser prairie chickens, the colorful birds that flee habitats where wind turbines are built. Apparently, the chickens think anything that rises above the horizon is a potential predator, such as a raptor.
J.D. Strong, state environment secretary, said at the Oklahoma Wind Energy Conference held in early December that the wind industry is doing great things to minimize the collisions between the wind turbines, birds and bats.
"But the lesser prairie chicken is not so much collision," he said. "They have evolved to stay away from any tall structures.
Today, the lesser prairie chicken population has decreased to less than 10 percent compared to its population at statehood. It was once a widespread game bird native to Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. That leaves the chicken hovering perilously close to becoming an endangered species.
"A very real challenge that needs to be confronted," Strong said.
The state has been collaborating with several departments, schools, research centers and environmental groups to develop a spatial planning tool to help wind farm developers avoid building in the best habitats for the chickens.
The resulting Oklahoma Lesser Prairie-Chicken Spatial Planning Tool uses geographical information system (or GIS) planning tools to map the fowl's habitats.
"Oklahoma is the first model in the country that assigns mitigation costs," Strong said.
Entities that worked together on the model include the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Oklahoma Secretary of Environment, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, Playa Lake Joint Venture, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service and the George M. Sutton Avian Research Center.
OG&E recently collaborated with the state wildlife department on a 4,700-acre conservation easement in northwestern Oklahoma to protect the lesser prairie chicken.
OG&E operates two wind farms in the state, including the recently completed OU Spirit wind farm near Woodward. However, wind power is still a small part of the company's power portfolio.
"We are not a wind power company," said OG&E CEO Peter Delaney at the wind conference. "We don't desire to be a wind power company. We're market driven. We're not driven by a mandate."
OG&E wind farms produce 260 megawatts currently, and the company expects to produce 600 megawatts by the end of 2010, Delaney said.
Recently, OG&E signed a memorandum of agreement with the state to fund the study of conservation easements to protect wildlife, giving the department $3.75 million to protect habitat near its wind farm sites.
"People refer to this as our 'Cash for Clunkers' program," Delaney quipped.
The state of Wyoming has had similar problems with the sage grouse, said Steve Ferrell, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
"(Wind structures) cast shadows and lead birds to think they are being preyed upon," he said.
Ferrell said it was important to get the balance between wildlife and power creation right.
"We are the generation who are going to decide the rules," he said.
Ferrell said part of the problem with the sage grouse is that there is little data on the bird. The state is currently in the sixth year of a 10-year study on the grouse.
More information on the lesser prairie chicken, its habitat and its declining population is available at www.suttoncenter.org. "Carol Cole-Frowe