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FWS taking on wind, wildlife connection

9/2/2011

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

GREAT BEND -- They didn't have many answers, but they were besieged by questions about what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to do as it develops a wind energy habitat plan.

That plan would stretch from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, a 200-mile-wide corridor essentially covering the migration route of the endangered whooping crane and the existing range of the all-but-endangered lesser prairie chicken.

Yet, the Great Bend meeting, tucked between Cheyenne Bottoms to the north and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge to the south -- favored stopping-off points for whooping cranes -- didn't attract many people outside state and federal wildlife agencies, in addition to the contractor hired to do the habitat plan.

What's happening is the federal wildlife agency is conducting an environmental impact study -- being paid for with money from a group of 19 wind energy companies -- that have asked for an incidental take permit.

That ITP essentially is a program that issues a permit allowing the collection or death of an endangered species.

That has raised concerns for some wildlife enthusiasts, fearful that developing a habitat plan might serve as little more than a permit to either kill -- or in the case of lesser prairie chickens -- disturb their habitat.

Troy Schroeder, representing the Kansas Wildlife Federation, hopes that's not the case, preferring instead to believe FWS will continue to safeguard troubled species.

Still, he said he's heard people voice concern the process will "give wind companies free access to do whatever they want."

He's not convinced of that.

"I just think personally, that's not the case," he said. "I hope so."

The Kansas Wildlife Federation, Schroeder said, generally is supportive of wind energy.

"But we're very concerned about bad siting," he added.

Already, a couple projects have been located in areas where it affected lesser prairie chickens, which are known generally to avoid tall structures, fearful they might serve as a roost for predators.

Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, said he thought the meeting was a useful opportunity to talk to FWS personnel and wind developers.

"I think it has the potential to be helpful, but it is no guarantee to prevent conflicts between wildlife and wind, especially with the rogue wind energy companies who locate wind farms where they shouldn't be," he said.

The meeting wasn't just for wildlife enthusiasts, however.

Earnie Lehman, president and general manager of Hays-based Midwest Energy, was there as well, wanting to learn more about what's taking place. Lehman also serves as vice-chairman of the Kansas Electric Transmission Authority, which urged the construction of a massive electric transmission line from Spearville into Nebraska.

Both ultimately could be affected by whatever decision FWS comes up with once the study is complete.

"It's always easier for people and businesses to make their plans if they know what the rules are," he said. "This may have no effect, or it might make it better.

"I don't think it can slow down any more than it is."

Lehman also said he thinks something similar at the state-level might be good.

"Whether through KETA or on their own, I'd like to see Kansas wind developers look at this," he said.

* Additional details about the project can be found at www.fws.gov/southwest. Comments need to be submitted by Oct. 12.