By Richard Harris Podolsky, PhD
In response to a precipitous decline of the lesser prairie-chicken (LPC), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced on March 27 that it is listing the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under the ESA, a “threatened” designation means the species is likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future. Threatened-species status represents a step below “endangered” and, as such, carries fewer restrictions.
Nevertheless, the listing of any species under the ESA has immediate and long-term implications for both energy and agriculture interests. And because the LPC resides in the wind-rich lands of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, rest assured that listing will impact wind developers now and until the species recovers and is de-listed or it goes extinct.
Why the fuss?
Historically, LPC were common in sand sagebrush-bluestem and within shinnery oak-bluestem vegetation types. Currently, LPC are most common in dwarf shrub and mixed grasses on sandy soils, as well as in short-grass or mixed-grass habitats on loamy or clayey soils. In Colorado and Kansas, LPC are typically restricted to sand sagebrush communities dominated by sand dropseed, side oats grama and blue grama. Recently in the northern fringe of its range, LPC have moved into mixed-grass prairie and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields. And although all these vegetation elements are important to LPC, the thing they need more of than almost anything else is what is increasingly in short supply – large and contiguous expanses of undisturbed habitat. In order for LPC to sustain viable populations, it is estimated they need contiguous units of their preferred habitat that are a minimum of 25,000-50,000 acres in area, or coincidentally, about the size of an average wind farm in the Great Plains. A century ago, the heath hen, a New England relative of the LPC, went extinct due to similar cumulative impacts resulting from destruction of its preferred habitat.
As early as next year, this same ESA-listing scenario may play out with another increasingly rare western bird, the greater sage-grouse (GSG). However, the impact of that listing will be even more far reaching because GSG will be listed as an endangered species, as opposed to threatened species for LPC. Also, GSG and their preferred habitats are found in 11 states, as opposed to five states for LPC.
The upshot of these ecological proclivities is that, according to the FWS’ LPC Conservation Plan, once a site has been designated as LPC habitat, it is recommended that “avoidance buffers” be established between such sites and the following human impacts: 300 feet to the nearest gravel road; 600 feet to the nearest distribution line or residential building; 900 feet to the nearest oil or gas pad; 1,800 feet to the nearest transmission line; 2,250 feet to the nearest paved road; and 3,000 feet to the nearest wind farm, commercial building or tall telecommunication tower.
These large buffers were derived from careful scientific study of the observed responses of LPC to these various land-use features. The proposed buffers are particularly large for wind farms and telecommunication towers because studies showed that LPC were particularly sensitive to them. These 3,000-foot buffers will invariably result in fewer turbines and tall towers in areas that also host LPC populations or their preferred habitat.
The WAFWA conservation plan was developed by a consortium of experts from all five states and with input from a wide range of stakeholders. Regarding the special 4(d) WAFWA deal, Ashe said, “Working through the WAFWA range-wide conservation plan, the states remain in the driver’s seat for managing the species – more than has ever been done before – and participating landowners and developers are not impacted with additional regulatory requirements. We expect these plans to work for business, landowners and the conservation of prairie-chickens.”
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture