Energy or Prairie: Can Wind Vitality and Wildlife Coexist within the Flint Hills? -
Energy or Prairie: Can Wind Vitality and Wildlife Coexist within the Flint Hills?  Energy or Prairie: Can Wind Vitality and Wildlife Coexist within the Flint Hills? GPChicken Fiely FI

Energy or Prairie: Can Wind Vitality and Wildlife Coexist within the Flint Hills?

Extra From Residing BirdLiving Chicken Spring 2020—Desk of ContentsLiving Chicken Journal—Newest IssueLiving Chicken Journal Archives
From the Spring 2020 difficulty of Residing Chicken journal. Subscribe now.

The images for this story was made doable with help from the Robert F. Schumann Basis, a charitable belief devoted to bettering the standard of lifetime of each people and animals by supporting environmental, academic, arts, and cultural organizations and businesses. 

Kansas rancher Brian Obermeyer was driving throughout Iowa in 2001 when he noticed a wind farm for the very first time, the gleaming alabaster pillars capturing upward and swish blades carving arcs within the sky.
“My first response was, ‘Cool, a wind farm!’” he remembers. Obermeyer had simply began working for The Nature Conservancy, and he was headed to a gathering in Minneapolis. Then he had a startling thought—what if a wind farm like that sprouted up on the wind-blown prairie plains in jap Kansas?
“It wasn’t just some months later we came upon about all these prospectors out right here working the Flint Hills, leasing up land for wind farms,” he says.
Obermeyer, now director of land safety and stewardship for the Conservancy in Kansas, tells the story as he drives his truck alongside a gravel highway snaking over the rolling hills of the Tallgrass Nationwide Prairie Protect. The Flint Hills panorama is spectacular. Grasses blanket the hills to the horizon.
Lower than 4% of the tallgrass prairie stays,
with the most effective of what’s left within the Kansas Flint Hills. Map graphic by Jillian Ditner.
The Flint Hills, with 90 species of grasses and 600 wildflowers, is the biggest unbroken remnant of the tallgrass prairie—an ecosystem dominated by massive bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass that may tower over the top of an individual strolling by them. Tallgrass as soon as lined the midcontinent, roughly 170 million acres from Texas to Canada. In the present day bison graze on a piece of the Tallgrass Nationwide Prairie Protect in Kansas. In days passed by, we would have seen pronghorns, elk, wolves, and even perhaps a grizzly.
“Tallgrass prairie—it’s a fairly unhappy story when you consider it,” says Obermeyer. “A lot of it was prime farmland that was simply aching to be plowed by settlers. Traditionally Iowa had extra tallgrass prairie than Kansas did.”
However at present, “many of the tallgrass prairie in Iowa is rising corn and soybeans,” he says.
Solely about 4% of tallgrass prairie stays, and two-thirds of that lies within the Flint Hills of jap Kansas and Oklahoma (the place the identical formation is known as the Osage Hills). The Flint Hills was saved by its skinny, cherty soil. Practically inconceivable to plow besides within the fertile bottomlands, it was given to grazing, which perpetuated the native grass.
Obermeyer stops his truck atop a hill, affording a transparent view of the far horizon in all instructions: “From this vantage level right here, there’s extra tallgrass prairie inside a 20-mile radius than all the opposite prairie states and provinces mixed, not counting Oklahoma,” he says.
We soar from the truck and shift our gaze to the assorted species of grasses and forbs at our ft.
Higher Prairie-Rooster within the tallgrass. Photograph by Jonathan Fiely.The Elk River Wind Mission close to Beaumont, Kansas, was constructed proper on the southern fringe of the Flint Hills, residence to the biggest remnant of tallgrass prairie. Photograph by Jonathan Fiely.The rock-strewn rolling hills of the tallgrass prairie within the Flint Hills made many of the space inhospitable to crop agriculture, however good for grazing animals. Photograph by Jonathan Fiely.The Flint Hills tallgrass prairie is prime grazing grounds for bison. Photograph by Jonathan Fiely.PreviousNext
“It’s a spot the place you possibly can sort of hear your self suppose,” Obermeyer continues. “You’ve bought a clear horizon.”
However more and more, wind generators are popping up on horizons across the Flint Hills. Whereas it isn’t the windiest spot in Kansas, it’s windy sufficient—and close to sufficient to massive markets corresponding to Kansas Metropolis—to draw wind-energy builders. And wind energy is booming in Kansas: The put in wind-generation capability within the state has jumped 500% within the final decade.
That creates a dilemma for conservationists corresponding to Obermeyer, who favor renewable power to battle local weather change but in addition treasure unbroken expanses of vanishing ecosystems such because the tallgrass prairie.
How you can accommodate two competing views of what it means to preserve nature? Obermeyer and his colleagues at The Nature Conservancy have a plan.
Higher Prairie-Chickens by Jonathan Fiely.<!–[full_width path="" class="light"]Higher Prairie-Rooster by Jonathan Fiely.[/full_width]–>
A Haven for Grassland Birds and Shorebirds
As a big grassland, the Flint Hills are very important to ground-nesting birds corresponding to meadowlarks, Henslow’s Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Dickcissels. Prairie lakes and ephemeral ponds identified regionally as playas additionally appeal to waterfowl and shorebirds by the tens of hundreds. As a pure north-south hall, the Flint Hills are an essential migration route for shorebirds, corresponding to American Golden-Plovers and Killdeer. Although it’s nicely over a thousand miles from the closest coast, the Flint Hills is designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Community website. It helps greater than 30% of the world’s Buff-breasted Sandpipers throughout their migration.
These are teams of birds that, by and enormous, will not be doing nicely. In response to analysis printed within the journal Science final yr, the grassland-breeding chicken inhabitants throughout the U.S. and Canada has declined by greater than 50% since 1970. Different analysis has depicted a migratory shorebird inhabitants that’s down by greater than 70% in that interval.
The Elk River Wind Mission was sited within the core of a key midcontinental area for chicken habitat. In the present day wind generators spin within the midst of a breeding space for grassland birds corresponding to Japanese Meadowlarks. Photograph by Matt Aeberhard.American Golden-Plovers forage on farmland throughout a migration stopover on former prairie land. Photograph by Matt Aeberhard.
If any chicken is emblematic of the Flint Hills, it’s the Higher Prairie-Rooster, regarded by native ranchers as a prized sport chicken and image of their big-sky homeland. Throughout spring breeding season, male prairie-chickens collect on show grounds known as leks, the place they elevate plumes on their heads and inflate vivid orange air sacs on their necks whereas drumming their ft, whooping, and cackling to impress the onlooking hens.
Higher Prairie-Chickens as soon as ranged throughout the grasslands of the jap United States to the Entrance Vary of the Rockies, however just like the tallgrass itself, that vary has shrunk to a sliver. Now, these prairie-chickens dwell in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, with scattered populations in neighboring states.
The Flint Hills is a prairie-chicken stronghold. Brief grass, excessive floor, and hilltops present the right lekking websites. Taller, thicker grass on the low floor offers nesting cowl to cover eggs and newly hatched chicks from hovering hawks and prowling coyotes.
Higher Prairie-Chickens “want loads of totally different sorts of habitat,” says Virginia Winder, affiliate professor of biology at Benedictine School in Atchison, Kansas. “When a kind of issues is lacking, that causes an issue.”
As soon as upon a time, the Flint Hills supplied these items in abundance.
In spring, male Higher Prairie-Chickens battle for dominance on leks that appeal to hens from miles round. Photograph by Jonathan Fiely.
Again in the course of the 20th century, Jim Hoy grew up on a ranch close to Cassoday, Kansas, the place an indication (now gone) posted alongside the highway into city proclaimed it to be the “Prairie Rooster Capital of the World.” Hoy’s household grew just a little corn for the cows and tied the stalks into shocks earlier than harvest.
“I’d drive out within the morning with a staff of mules pulling a wagon,” remembers Hoy, “and there’d be 40, 50, 60 [prairie-chickens] sitting on these shocks consuming the grain. Dad didn’t begrudge them, as a result of a pair occasions a winter he’d take the .22 with him and we’d have prairie-chicken for dinner.”
Steve Sundgren additionally grew up on a ranch close to Cassoday. Again within the late 1940s, his household would commonly invite just a few pals to their ranch for a giant feed and prairie-chicken hunt. The hunters would conceal in fencerows and shoot birds as they crossed from grassy roosting spots to foraging spots amongst small fields of soybeans and sorghum.
“Oh, my gosh, it was simply unbelievable once I was youthful,” Sundgren says. The skies have been full of prairie-chickens—“a whole bunch and a whole bunch of them.”
The looking was so good, native politicians started stopping by the household ranch and the gang quickly grew to 60 or 70 shooters.
“Folks from everywhere in the United States would come right here to hunt,” remembers Sundgren. “One Sunday morning, we killed 197 prairie-chickens.”
Sundgren simply accomplished his 60th hunt.
“We shot 11. My spouse and I’ve been eager to stop and our pals received’t allow us to. It’s camaraderie now, it’s not the hunt,” he says. “The inhabitants is de facto down, it’s gone down tremendously.”
“Rooster populations within the Flint Hills have been declining for a lot of many years,” confirms Jeff Prendergast, small sport specialist for the Kansas Division of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. But it’s not looking and even wind growth that has pushed the decline. Slightly, it’s the altering patterns of grazing and using fireplace.
Ranchers used to burn their grasslands each three or 4 years to advertise new development and revitalize the forage for livestock. However about 30 years in the past ranchers started “intensive early stocking,” says Obermeyer—loading the prairie with twice the variety of cattle for half the season. Then they started burning extra aggressively, virtually yearly. In response to Obermeyer, personal ranchers burned 2.eight million acres of the 4.5 million–acre tallgrass panorama in Kansas and Oklahoma final yr. Cattle grazing and annual burning can create terrific prairie-chicken leks, however an excessive amount of grazing and burning destroys the grassy nesting cowl wanted to shelter eggs and hatchlings.
Elsewhere within the prairie-chicken’s vary in Kansas, fires have been scarce and bushes are encroaching on the prairie from the sides. Whether or not it’s an excessive amount of disturbance, or too little, the general drawback of habitat degradation has damage the birds, Prendergast says.
And if mega-wind farms sprout up on what stays of fine prairie-chicken habitat, the issue may worsen.
Wind generators at sundown. Photograph by Jonathan Fiely.
A New Menace
As wind energy takes off in Kansas (final yr, the state ranked fourth nationally in put in wind capability), Obermeyer and others fear concerning the impact of the generators on prairie-chickens.
Sadly, prairie-chickens and wind generators like the identical habitat—excessive, windswept areas with out bushes. And there’s proof they don’t coexist nicely.
Kansas rancher Brian Obermeyer of The Nature Conservancy helped launch the Website Wind Proper initiative in Kansas to encourage
conservation-friendly wind-power siting. Photograph by Jonathan Fiely.
“Chickens don’t appear to love vertical buildings, whether or not it’s bushes or transmission strains,” Obermeyer says. He says bushes and energy strains present lookouts for the looking raptors that prey on prairie-chickens. As nicely, the “shadow flicker” from the wind turbine’s sweeping rotors could stress hens and make them extra prone to abandon the nest. “It sort of mimics a chicken flying over.”
Some analysis backs up Obermeyer’s considerations. Winder, the biology professor from Benedictine School, studied the before-and-after results of the Meridian Manner Wind Energy Facility in north-central Kansas, simply outdoors of the Flint Hills. She discovered prairie-chickens confirmed an inclination to desert leks close to generators. After building, male prairie-chickens have been 3 times extra prone to abandon leks inside 5 miles of a turbine than leks farther away.
“Essentially the most drastic impact is correct subsequent to the turbine,” says Winder.
But she discovered no proof that generators negatively have an effect on nest choice, nest survival, or grownup survival.
“If you happen to’re on the lookout for me to tie this all up right into a neat story, there isn’t one,” she says. “I can’t say that wind power is all the time good or it’s all the time unhealthy.”
Larkin Powell, professor of conservation biology on the College of Nebraska–Lincoln, was a coauthor on Winder’s paper and has additionally studied prairie-chickens on a wind farm in Nebraska’s Sandhills. He concurs that the specter of wind energy isn’t clear reduce.
Pure gasoline and oil growth, with extra noise and visitors, appear to drive out prairie-chickens greater than wind does, he says. However, he provides, wind energy with its rising footprint on the panorama may very well be a much bigger potential drawback sooner or later.
“I might all the time say there’s nonetheless potential if sooner or later wind amenities are greater and there’s extra infrastructure,” Powell says.
A cautious stability of cattle grazing and annual burning can create terrific prairie-chicken leks, however an excessive amount of destroys the habitat. Photograph by Matt Aeberhard.
Drought Strikes Concern
For some ranchers, concern for prairie-chickens competes with the necessity to diversify their sources of earnings.
The Nature Conservancy merged a number of layers of habitat information—together with essential areas for birds and bats—to create the Website Wind Proper map, which identifies areas the place wind growth is unlikely to come across important wildlife-related battle, venture delays, and price overruns.
When a wind developer first approached fourth-generation Flint Hills rancher Pete Ferrell in 1994, “my reply was no,” he says. However after researching wind growth and speaking to ranchers in California who had leased land for wind towers, Ferrell modified his thoughts.
The Elk River wind facility was accomplished in 2005 south of Beaumont, Kansas, on ranches belonging to Ferrell and two neighbors. On a sunny afternoon, 100 generators—every reaching greater than 30 tales excessive—spin on both aspect of Ferrell Ranch Street. The rotors, 250 ft throughout, whisper within the gentle breeze. Practically 18 miles of industrial quality service roads wind among the many generators.
Ferrell explains his change of coronary heart: “Drought strikes concern into the center of each rancher. What occurs if I’ve to de-stock? How do I sustain my monetary commitments within the face of drought?”
Through the drought of 2010–13, he reduce his cattle herd by 40% and his ranch survived, whereas others throughout the Nice Plains folded.
“So the wind farm gave me latitude to outlive drought,” he says. “I all the time say it’s my greatest crop as a result of the wind all the time blows, even through the drought.”
Ferrell says he was additionally motivated by the specter of local weather change: “On the time the wind farm was constructed, nobody appeared to take this significantly. Many nonetheless don’t.
“I knew I used to be going to vary the view-shed within the Flint Hills, however I believed that it’s extra essential to save lots of all of the birds and to be thoughtful of all of the ecosystems on the planet. We’ve to get carbon out of our power combine as rapidly as doable. I’m painfully conscious of the local weather disaster that we’re dealing with.”

By the Numbers: Wind Generators and Birds
Wind generators will not be a significant supply of total chicken mortality, however they do kill birds in some areas. In response to analysis printed within the journal Annual Assessment of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics in 2015, an estimated 234,000 birds are killed yearly within the U.S. from wind generators. That’s nicely beneath different causes of direct chicken mortality, however there have  been some troubling situations of kills , particularly of raptors, at wind farms that have been positioned close to chicken breeding areas or migration corridors. Learn extra in Evaluation: Is It Attainable To Have Wind Energy Whereas Maintaining Birds Secure?

Estimates of annual chicken deaths from particular human-related causes (aside from habitat loss) in the US and Canada. Supply: Loss et al. 2015.
As he leased his land for generators, Ferrell says, he fretted concerning the prairie-chickens on his property, together with a number of lively leks. A consulting agency mapped leks and counted birds two years earlier than building started.
“I used to be actually involved concerning the welfare of the Higher Prairie-Rooster. We went into it armed with the most effective data on the time. , I might have been devastated if we couldn’t show that the Higher Prairie-Rooster was going to be okay.”
After building, Ferrell says, he invested a few of his wind-farm cash to enhance prairie-chicken habitat.
“I reduce down each tree on eight sections of floor the place the wind farm was to ensure there was no perch for Purple-tailed Hawks,” he says. “The second factor I did was I fully mitigated our burn coverage so we have been positive to not burn their home down yearly.”
After building, the variety of prairie-chicken leks inside a mile of the wind venture plummeted, in keeping with a survey commissioned by the developer, Iberdrola Renewables. However by 2011, the variety of leks elevated—primarily within the space simply outdoors the venture, suggesting that lekking birds have been avoiding the world beneath the generators. The entire variety of birds inside a mile of the generators returned to preconstruction ranges.
The Elk River wind venture proved controversial amongst landowners who didn’t just like the look of towering generators marching throughout the panorama. But that wasn’t the top of it. In 2012, the Caney River venture—a 3rd bigger than Elk River—started working 11 miles to the southeast. As extra wind builders drew a bead on the Flint Hills, then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius negotiated a voluntary take care of the wind trade to avoid the Flint Hills as far south because the Elk River venture. The following governor, Sam Brownback, prolonged what had change into referred to as the “governor’s field” south all the way in which to the Oklahoma border.
That voluntary settlement with the wind trade has held, although present Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has been pressed by no less than one county board to permit extra wind initiatives into the Flint Hills.
“Each time we get a brand new governor the difficulty comes up once more,” says Brad Loveless, Kansas secretary of parks, wildlife and tourism. “I can inform you that the [current] governor is supportive of defending the Flint Hills.” Loveless acknowledges that the settlement may crumble with a change within the political winds or the following election. As a result of almost all of the Flint Hills is privately owned, the offers are purely voluntary—and there are not any proposals to ban growth on personal property. Says Loveless, “I don’t think about there’s loads of urge for food on the a part of the Legislature to legislate at defending sure areas.”
Because it stands now, the state has a restricted official position in wind-power siting, or controlling the place wind power will get developed, Loveless says.
“All it takes to make a venture work is a developer prepared to website a venture, a county that’s prepared to just accept it and approve it, and anyone that’s prepared to purchase the ability,” Loveless says. “Given the correct circumstances, all these issues may come collectively and so they may put wind energy in a extremely unhealthy spot.”
A Manner of Life
Household portrait: The fourth- and fifth-generation ranchers of the Hoy household (from proper: Gwen, Josh, Jim, and Cathy, who handed away in July 2019) are on the forefront of advocating for conservation of the tallgrass prairie panorama within the Kansas Flint Hills. Photograph by Jonathan Fiely.
In Oklahoma’s Osage Hills, which doesn’t have the safety of a “governor’s field” to advise the place wind power ought to or shouldn’t be developed, Ford Drummond awakened one morning to discover a wind farm going up on a neighbor’s ranch. The generators have been erected by a Kansas firm that averted the Flint Hills, positive sufficient, however merely marched south throughout the state line.
Now the generators are shut sufficient that if a tower crashed it will take out Drummond’s fence.
“We nonetheless have lovely tallgrass prairie landscapes, and that to me is likely one of the worst issues concerning the wind farm,” says Drummond, who can be a board member of the Oklahoma Nature Conservancy. “I’m not anti–wind farm per se, however there are specific locations the place they belong and sure locations the place they don’t.”
That’s the thought behind a Nature Conservancy effort known as Website Wind Proper. It started almost 10 years in the past as Brian Obermeyer and colleagues have been making an attempt to answer wind growth.
“The Nature Conservancy, from the very starting, made it very clear we have been supportive of wind energy,” says Obermeyer. “That is simply an effort to assist siting in a means that avoids key habitats.”
The Conservancy crew puzzled over tips on how to mitigate the consequences of wind farms on areas they recognized as ecologically useful, corresponding to giant tracts of native prairie or playas.
“What we discovered was that there are some locations you simply can’t [mitigate wind-farm effects]…they’re irreplaceable,” says Obermeyer. “You can’t recreate an intact native grassland. You simply can’t mitigate that.”
However by taking a look at maps, they realized Kansas had greater than 6 million acres of totally roaded and plowed farmland, largely to the west of the Flint Hills the place wind growth would pose little further risk to wildlife and uncommon ecosystems. That’s sufficient for 134 gigawatts of put in wind capability, roughly equal to 100 typical energy crops—excess of even probably the most optimistic forecasts for state wind manufacturing.
“Nineteen p.c of the state with viable wind assets wouldn’t require any [ecological] mitigation in any respect,” Obermeyer says. That’s an space bigger than the Flint Hills.

hbspt.cta.load(95627, ‘096b8ce3-0e2d-46c5-bbf7-12de3323c8da’, {});

Subsequent, Obermeyer turned to Chris Hise, affiliate director of conservation for the Oklahoma Nature Conservancy chapter. Hise labored his GIS expertise and expanded the Kansas Website Wind Proper map to 17 states throughout the nation’s “wind belt,” from Ohio to Texas to Montana. In almost all of these states there are huge areas with excessive wind-energy potential that don’t battle with conservation targets.
Nathan Cummins, the Conservancy’s Nice Plains renewable power technique director, says the group is selling Website Wind Proper with states and wind builders by organizations such because the American Wind Vitality Affiliation and the American Wind Wildlife Institute. One energy firm—Evergy, which delivers electrical energy to greater than 1.6 million prospects in Kansas and Missouri—is instantly utilizing Website Wind Proper maps in wind-siting selections.
“On the entire, it’s a really constructive message,” says Hise. “It appears to be like like we’ve the potential to provide one thing like 1,000 gigawatts of wind capability, loads of room to develop wind with out, hopefully, having adverse impacts on wildlife.”
Higher Prairie-Rooster flying at sundown. Photograph by Jonathan Fiely.
“The Solely Manner”
Some Flint Hills ranchers are taking their very own actions to completely shield their grasslands.
Josh Hoy (Jim Hoy’s son) has offered conservation easements overlaying virtually half of his household’s 7,000-acre Flying W Ranch close to the city of Clements within the coronary heart of the Flint Hills. And inside the subsequent two years, “each acre can be protected,” says Hoy.
The idea behind a conservation easement is straightforward. The landowner sells growth rights on property to a conservation group and receives a cost. In return that land should be stored as it’s in perpetuity. It’s an efficient means to guard habitat in a panorama dominated by personal property. Thus far Obermeyer says The Nature Conservancy and different companions have secured about 110,000 acres of conservation easements within the Flint Hills.
“It’s actually the one option to shield rangeland and ranch land long run,” says Hoy. “It doesn’t matter what our intentions are, our kids’s, our grandchildren’s intentions are going to be totally different. If that property is protected and held collectively by an easement, then they will nonetheless get the advantages from it. They simply can’t divide it up and break it up and switch it into housing tracts or put industrial parks on it or put in industrial wind or fracking or any of these issues that degrade and destroy.”

The images for this story was made doable with help from the Robert F. Schumann Basis, a charitable belief devoted to bettering the standard of lifetime of each people and animals by supporting environmental, academic, arts, and cultural organizations and businesses. It’s a part of the Cornell Lab Heart for Conservation Media’s effort to boost consciousness about sustainable power growth inside the Kansas Flint Hills tallgrass prairie panorama.

In the end, the battle within the Flint Hills is a wrestle over a near-pristine prairie remnant—the final 4% of the tallgrass—and a lifestyle.
Annie Wilson owns the two,000-acre 5 Oaks Ranch within the southern Flint Hills, most all of it native prairie. In faculty through the 1970s she was an enormous proponent of wind energy.
“I used to be positive that all of us can be utilizing wind and photo voltaic solely by the top of the century,” she says. However when she realized the size of wind growth, she started to concern its environmental influence.
“I don’t imagine within the time period ‘wind farm.’ I feel that’s a extremely misleading euphemism,” she says. “It appears to me that you’d need to website these methods in locations that don’t include the previous couple of p.c of a threatened ecosystem, as is the tallgrass prairie.”
Wilson can be a songwriter. Generally she sings concerning the prairie that surrounds her.
“One in every of my songs is ‘The Clear Curve of Hill In opposition to Sky,’” she says. “The concept is that there are simply so few locations left on earth that you may see that, however you possibly can see it right here, the place there are not any bushes, no towers, no buildings…simply the prairie horizon.”
Freelance author Greg Breining writes about wildlife, the setting, well being, and science. His newest ebook, Wolf Island, describes the early days of the long-running wolf–moose analysis research on Isle Royale. 

Read the original article

Share This


Wordpress (0)
Disqus ( )