Greater Prairie-Chicken & Wind Energy

Considerations and Implications for Wind Energy Development:

Greater Prairie-Chicken Research1 at the Meridian Way Wind Energy Facility in Kansas

Prepared by Rob Manes & Brian Obermeyer

July 30, 2013

The Sandercock et al. Meridian Way research project, Effects of Wind Power Development on the Population Biology of Greater Prairie-Chicken in Kansas, is an important and scientifically rigorous study, which was supported by The Nature Conservancy and other conservation entities.  The purpose of this brief examination is to highlight concerns and appropriate cautions regarding the application of the study’s findings.  In total, the study indicates that wind energy facilities in fragmented grasslands may pose some detriments to prairie-chickens; but those detriments, in certain settings, may be less than previously anticipated and therefore mitigatable.  The study also points to land management strategies that may improve prairie-chicken habitat conditions to offset unavoidable impacts. 

While the study outcomes are encouraging, there is concern over misinterpretation and misapplication of its findings via extrapolation to other species, ecological site types, conditions, and geographies; simply put, it could be used erroneously to facilitate unmitigated wind energy development in areas of large and unfragmented native habitats. Associated concerns fall into five categories:  1) other credible studies show negative effects of anthropogenic features on prairie-chickens and other birds;  2) effects of habitat fragmentation at the study site may mask displacement and other negative impacts;  3) site fidelity behavior of prairie-chickens may delay or mask significant population impacts;  4) the study was designed with three replicates, but two sites ultimately were not developed for wind energy, so that no off-site data comparisons were possible, and reconciliation of conflicting study findings remains to be achieved; and  5) Kansas offers ample wind energy development opportunity outside areas of intact native habitat and where ecological impact concerns are minimal.

Other studies2,3have demonstrated avoidance of human intrusions (e.g., powerlines and roadways) by greater prairie-chickens.  Additional research findings clearly indicate displacement of lesser prairie-chickens and sage-grouse from areas of similar development intensity4,5,6. Relevant to the Meridian Way study, prairie-chickens at the Elk River wind project near Beaumont, KS showed lekking avoidance of turbines, particularly within the tower arrays7,8.  Some of these findings may be explained by general declines in the area’s prairie-chicken population; however, lek monitoring summaries from the Elk River project site indicate that the facility displaces prairie-chickens.

Before construction in 2005, 10 leks with a total 103 birds were located within the Elk River project area (defined by a 1-mile radius of turbines).  Four years after construction, only one lek remained active with three birds. The number of leks and birds increased in 2011 and 2012, but this is probably explained, in large part, by a change in survey methods, which expanded the area surveyed to include leks within a two-mile buffer of turbines (rather than 1 mile, as previously examined). Mean lek distance from planned turbine sites in 2005 (pre-construction) was 0.36 mile, whereas mean distance increased after the turbines were erected, to 0.95 mi. in 2011 and 1.11 mi. in 2012. All of the post-construction leks were located on the outer periphery of the turbine arrays. Since construction, there has been no occupancy of the six pre-construction leks located within the interior of the facility.

As the study states, the Meridian Way project site is ecologically fragmented by cropland, farmsteads and roads, which may have influenced prairie-chickens to nest and brood-rear closer to turbines than they would have in a more intact landscape. The limited post-construction monitoring period, coupled with the fragmented habitat conditions and site fidelity of resident birds, also may have masked avoidance behavior. Comparison of the Elk River and Meridian Way sites’ fragmentation shows that intact prairie within a 10-mile radius of turbines at Elk River totaled 85.7 percent and 34.6 percent at the Meridian Way site.  Within a three-mile radius, intact prairie was measured at 93 percent at Elk River and 64 percent at Meridian Way. And within one mile of the turbines, intactness was measured at 98.7 percent and 73.5 percent at Elk River and Meridian Way, respectively. It is important to note here that the study findings indicate that prairie-chickens reproduced more successfully in the relatively fragmented Meridian Way landscape, because large-scale spring burning is significantly less common at the Meridian Way project site than in the Flint Hills.

The study did document that hens on the Meridian Way site were displaced by the turbine-tower complexes. Post-construction reaction to turbines by hens was measured for only three years; regardless, minor population declines were detected. An extension of the data collection period may have revealed significant population declines masked or delayed by site fidelity, the life span of existing prairie-chicken, and the influence of surrounding habitat fragmentation on nest site selection.

The study’s previously selected replicate sites ultimately were not developed for wind energy and, thus, were not available for comparing data to results from the Meridian Way site. Pre-construction data collection at the Meridian Way site was rigorous and extensive; but questions remain and additional data is needed to reconcile conflicting information regarding impacts of development on lesser prairie-chicken and sage-grouse. Extrapolating Meridian Way outcomes to other settings and geographies may facilitate wind energy development that is unnecessarily deleterious to wildlife.

Wind energy development in ecologically intact grasslands is simply not necessary. In areas of Kansas where wind energy development is considered economically feasible (based on wind resources and proximity to transmission lines), only 29 percent has been identified as unmitigatable habitat, or areas where development should not take place; 52 percent as areas requiring varying levels of mitigation; and 19 percent as areas where mitigation of wind energy development would not be necessary9. Within the areas of minimal anticipated ecological impacts, where wind energy mitigation would not be necessary, up to 125 gigawatts (6.6 million acres) of commercial wind energy production could be built, 17 times greater than the amount needed to meet DOE’s goal for Kansas9. This illustrates the potential to aggressively develop wind energy in the state without compromising intact native habitats.

Literature Referenced:

1) Sandercock, B.K., S.M. Wisely, L.B. McNew, A.J. Gregory, L.M. Hunt. 2012. Effects of wind power development on the population biology of greater prairie-chickens in Kansas. Unpublished report to the NWCC Grassland Community Collaborative Oversight Committee.

2) Pruett, C.L., M.A. Patten, and D.H. Wolfe. 2009a. It’s not easy being green: wind energy and a declining grassland bird. BioScience 59:257–262.

3) Pruett, C.L., M.A. Patten, and D.H. Wolfe. 2009b. Avoidance behavior by prairie grouse: Implications for Development of Wind Energy. Conservation Biology 23:1253–1259.

4) Robel, R.J., J.A. Harrington Jr., C.A. Hagen, J.C. Pitman, and R.R. Reker. 2004. Effect of energy development and human activity on the use of sand sagebrush habitat by lesser prairie-chickens in southwestern Kansas. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference 69:251–266.

5) Pitman, J.C., C.A. Hagen, R.J. Robel, T.M. Loughin, and R.D. Applegate.2005. Location and success of lesser prairie-chicken nests in relation to vegetation and human disturbance. Journal of Wildlife Management 69:1259–1269.

6) Naugle, D.E., K.E. Doherty, B.L. Walker, M.J. Holloran, and H.E. Copeland. 2009. Energy development and greater sage-grouse. Section V: Conservation and management: Chapter 21. In: Marti, C. D. ed. Ecology and conservation of greater sage-grouse: A landscape species and its habitats. A release of a scientific monograph with permission of the authors, the Cooper Ornithological Society, and the University of California Press. Edited by Studies in Avian Biology, Boise, Idaho.

7) Johnson, G.D., W. Erickson and E. Young. 2009. Greater prairie-chicken lek surveys, Elk River Wind Farm, Butler County, Kansas. Unpublished report prepared for Iberdrola Renewables by WEST, Inc., Cheyenne, WY.

8) Johnson, G.D., E. Young, and J. Roppe.2012. Greater prairie-chicken response to wind energy development in southeast Kansas. Poster prepared for Iberdrola Renewables by WEST, Inc., Cheyenne, WY. (

9) Obermeyer B, Manes R, Kiesecker J, Fargione J, Sochi K (2011) Development by Design: Mitigating Wind Development’s Impacts on Wildlife in Kansas. PLoS ONE 6(10): e26698. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026698.