Stoic and creaky, the lonely windmill is a prairie icon. These days, though, ranch windmills provide more nostalgia than punch. More efficient and reliable solar-powered pumps are now the go-to way to move groundwater to livestock troughs — and they help ranchers conserve grasses both for declining wildlife and livestock.
Not to be confused with wind turbines, these windmills are mechanical structures moved by the wind that sit atop 20- to 40-foot-tall wooden or metal towers. The devices are used specifically for pumping ground water into tanks for livestock use. Solar-powered pumps now dominate the marketplace, while parts to keep the archaic windmill systems functioning are becoming difficult to find.
A pilot program is helping the windmill-to-solar conversion move along in eastern Montana. There, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service partnered with ABC, private landowners, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to develop a plan that removes windmills and replaces them with new solar-powered pumps.
How do old windmills stymie prairie bird conservation? During calm, hot summer days, wind speeds are usually not high enough to keep traditional windmills turning and pumping. Forced to seek reliable water sources, ranchers may move their animals to riparian or other areas they wouldn’t otherwise graze, increasing the likelihood that grasses will be depleted. Windmills also provide perches for avian predators in a landscape normally devoid of such vantage points. This further stresses prairie bird populations, pegged as the most hard-hit bird group in a 2019 Science paper on bird declines since 1970.
In summer 2020, a benchmark — 10 removed windmills — was reached. The newly installed solar pumps provide a more reliable summer water supply for livestock, allowing for better management of grasslands that are home to the Chestnut-collared Longspur, Baird’s Sparrow, and other prairie birds on a collective 6,400 acres in southern Prairie County, Montana. In addition to this effort, several landowners removed other towers at their own expense.
ABC works with partners to conserve bird habitat on working ranches. Our Northern Plains team collaborates with landowners to support diverse, well-managed rangelands using livestock grazing techniques that improve soil health, enhance water quality and yield, provide forage for livestock, and meet the habitat needs of grassland birds and other wildlife species.
The project continues through 2021, and plans are being made to implement similar efforts in the northern part of the county in 2022 and 2023. Future projects could bring similar upgrades to landowners and land managers elsewhere in Montana, as well as in Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
This article was first published in “Birding Briefs” in the September/October 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.