Milestone Achieved for Lesser Prairie-Chicken with Wind Energy Partnership
Mitigation payments for lesser prairie-chicken and habitat conservation tops $50 million
The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) has finalized the first new wind energy development under the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan. The Bluestem Wind Energy project in western Oklahoma will be operated by Exelon Corporation, which recently purchased the project from Renewable Energy System (RES) Americas Inc. RES developed and is constructing the project. Fees associated with enrollment of this project in the range-wide plan have been deposited with WAFWA, which is partnering with landowners to implement habitat conservation projects across the range of the lesser prairie-chicken. Funding for this non-federal conservation effort now totals over $50 million.
"We commend Exelon and RES for taking part in this innovative and collaborative conservation effort for the lesser prairie-chicken, and we're excited to see this first wind energy project come on board," said Alexa Sandoval, Director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and Chairman of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council. "By voluntarily enrolling in the range-wide plan, they are demonstrating how wildlife conservation and energy development can occur on the landscape through proactive planning and by working with WAFWA and state wildlife agencies, regardless of the endangered species status of the bird. We anticipate more wind energy enrollments in the future."
A Sept. 1, 2015 federal court decision vacated protection of the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act, ruling that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not thoroughly consider active conservation efforts in making their listing decision, specifically the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has asked a federal judge to reconsider the Sept. 1 decision and a ruling is expected on that request soon.
The range-wide plan was developed by the five states within the range of the lesser prairie-chicken and is being administered by WAFWA. Those states are Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. The plan is designed to provide conservation of habitat necessary for the survival of this grassland bird. The groundbreaking partnership between state fish and wildlife agencies and energy companies allows development while minimizing and mitigating impacts to lesser prairie-chickens and the habitat they need to thrive.
Working with over 180 energy companies, WAFWA has created a conservation endowment fund from enrollment and habitat impact fees to support lesser prairie-chicken habitat conservation in the years to come. The interest from the endowment pays farmers and ranchers in perpetuity to conserve and restore habitat on private lands. As of January 2016, WAFWA has used the fees and interest to contract with private landowners for more than 100,000 acres of lesser prairie-chicken habitat conservation and has also purchased over 1,600 acres of habitat for permanent conservation.
"Exelon has a significant portfolio of wind projects across the country, and at each of them we are committed to constructing and operating in an environmentally responsive manner with special attention to minimizing wildlife impacts," said Ed Tracey, Director of Environmental Project Management for Exelon. "We have the same commitment at Bluestem. We've worked closely with WAFWA and will continue to work with them to minimize our development impact on lesser prairie-chickens and their habitat."
The 198-megawatt Bluestem wind farm project will consist of 60 wind turbine generators. Construction on the project has already begun and is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2016.
WAFWA has been on the leading edge of transforming the way conservation measures are applied on the landscape in the western U.S. Pulling together state and federal agencies and involving landowners, land managers and industry, WAFWA has been the catalyst in developing collaborative conservation efforts across the West, including the range-wide plan.
"The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan puts an economic value on prairie-chicken habitat, and companies have an incentive to shift new developments out of the native prairies and into areas either already developed or tilled because it costs less," said Sean Kyle, WAFWA Industry Services Director. "That's having a positive impact on how and where energy companies are siting new projects and development. And the bottom line is: that's good news for the long-term survival of this iconic species."
Organized in 1922, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) represents 23 states and Canadian provinces, an area covering nearly 3.7 million square miles of some of North America's most wild and scenic country. WAFWA supports and promotes the principles of sound resource management and the building of partnerships at the regional, national and international levels in order to enhance wildlife conservation efforts and the protection of associated habitats in the public interest.