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Can prairie grouse and wind turbines co-exist?

A male Sharp-tail pauses on a lek during a courtship dance. During its display, the bird raises its yellow eyebrows and flares its neck feathers, exposing purple air sacs that inflate as they amplify the male’s cooing courtship call. Photo by Ilya Raskin

The challenge of “balancing wildlife conservation and decarbonization of the electricity sector” has come to the grasslands and shrub-steppe of North America, according to findings published in the July 2022 issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin.

Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute’s John Lloyd and his colleagues found that, in the short-term, prairie grouse (Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater Sage-Grouse, Greater Prairie-Chicken, and Lesser Prairie-Chicken) “adult survival and nest success appear largely unaffected in populations exposed to wind-energy facilities.”

Based on an overlap between the estimated range of each species and the location of wind turbines in the U.S., some 17% of operating turbines are in the range of one of the four species. Sharp-tailed Grouse, with the most extensive range, are near the greatest number of turbines: 5,004. Greater Sage-Grouse and Greater Prairie-Chicken had fewer turbines in their geographic ranges (2,399 and 2,987, respectively), with Lesser Prairie-Chicken range overlapping with 1,040 wind turbines.

“Prairie grouse are vulnerable to collisions with fences and powerlines, and in some cases, collisions may be an important source of annual mortality,” the researchers report. Risks from turbine blades or towers did not appear to be widespread, however. In 230 monitoring studies conducted between 2000 and 2017 at 130 wind-energy facilities in the U.S., four sage-grouse, two Sharp-tails, and one Greater Prairie-Chicken may have been victims of run-ins with wind turbines or towers.


Greater Prairie-Chickens at leks closer to wind turbines in Nebraska, however, had changes in vocalizations that may be related to noise produced by the turbines or to roads built to service them. “Noise associated with wind-energy infrastructure might mask vocalizations that attract females to leks, potentially leading to lek abandonment,” Lloyd and his co-authors write.

In some cases, prairie grouse appear to avoid areas around wind-energy infrastructure entirely. In others, “no evidence of avoidance or displacement was found,” the researchers report. “When it occurred, avoidance of habitat near wind-energy infrastructure was most apparent among males attending leks and among females during the breeding season, especially during the brood-rearing season.”

Conserving populations of prairie grouse in the face of wind-energy development, according to Lloyd and co-authors, “will require a coordinated effort to link research, monitoring and management that treats every new wind-energy development as an opportunity to refine mitigation approaches.”


In search of the Sharp-tailed Grouse

This article appears in the March/April 2023 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe

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Cheryl Lyn Dybas

Cheryl Lyn Dybas

Cheryl Lyn Dybas is an ecologist and science journalist and a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers. She often writes about birds and their habitats. Her work has appeared in such publications as Canadian Geographic, Ocean Geographic, Scientific American, and BBC Wildlife. She has been a featured speaker on science journalism and conservation biology, and serves on the committees of several international scientific societies.

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