After decades of stresses, can the lesser prairie-chicken survive Oklahoma’s new wind farms?
BY BRYCE MCELHANEY | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 04
North on U.S. 270 to Woodward, Oklahoma, wind turbines own the horizon. They hover above rusting barns, cattle-guards and the barbed-wire fences that protect private land. When standing below, you feel the massive blades swoosh like flyswatters cutting through the air. As the wind picks up, the blades spin faster, and the machines emit a soft mechanical whine: the sound of power generated by nature. The town, home to 12,000 people, lies in the northwest corner of the state. The citizens who are paid to house the silo-sized white turbines on their property may not see controversy in them. But other locals see them as eyesores, or something even worse.
The energy scarecrows rise south of Woodward and west into the panhandle, spreading widely across the landscape. This dry, warm environment once gave rise to some of the most dynamic ecoregions of what is now the United States. Short, sod-forming grasses that evolved with the climate set the western short grasslands apart from other kinds of prairies. The prairie’s proximity to the tropics funneled in an incredible diversity of insects, birds and mammals. Seeing the number of endemic species would have been as breathtaking as watching turbines fan across U.S. 270.
But now, the region’s bird populations are among the fastest declining on the continent, and the turbine is the latest aggressor to swat native species out of existence. The flat, windswept plains seem to be made for renewable energy. Can the wind industry harbor as much hope for conservation as it does for renewable energy? One bird — the lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) — will test that possibility.
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