24 April 2017

Study on Prairie-Chicken Leks and Wind Turbines is Deficient

[Revised May 1, 2017.]

Results of the recently published study on the behavior of Greater Prairie-Chicken behavior are interesting but nearly useless in any consideration of how wind turbine activity has any influence on these prairie grouse. A goal of the study was to investigate activities of male Greater Prairie-Chicken in association with the wind turbine facility south of Ainsworth, operated by the Nebraska Public Power District and where there are 36 turbines.

Upon careful, detailed and repeated reading of the study results, and a consideration of tabular results, there is an aspect which is completely missing. The methods do not convey any effort to associate operational turbine activity and the resultant noise in any sort of association with the behavior of male prairie chickens.

The researchers indicate in their abstract that the potential for “low-frequency noise” caused by operational wind turbines may disrupt acoustic communication and thus behavior meant a prediction that males close to wind turbine facilities would spend more time in “agnostic behavior.” The researchers use details from the findings of other studies to make these two inferences.

Note that observations were made early in the morning, a time of the day when wind levels are most typically at the daily minimum; i.e., when turbine blades would most likely not be operating and thus there would be no turbine noise present. The researchers even indicate that “average daily wind speed” was not considered further in the “modeling process” despite having been measured during lek surveys.

There are no results associated with prairie-chicken behavior in association with turbine noise indicated in the research results. Nowhere within the published article is there any comparison of male lek behavior correlated with the noise levels made by operational turbines. The study suggests that “noise disturbance may affect the leking behavior of male greater prairie-chickens through two mechanisms.” Those are indicated to be low-frequency noise produced by operating wind turbines and how noise associated with operational wind turbines might influence behavior by male chickens at a lek.

It is quite obvious that the research results are proper but wholly inadequate.

Opinions indicated in the latter portion of this supposedly accurate article are nothing more than an opinion. Consider this item from the article: “Our results suggest that potential noise disturbance at the wind energy facility (i.e., turbine noise) did not disrupt acoustic communication to the level that the disturbance affected behavioral interactions." The next sentence in the peer-reviewed article uses the words "may suggest" which is basically an opinion. The next paragraph even infers that “results suggest that potential noise disturbance at the wind energy facility did not disrupt female lek attendance.”

It needs to be strongly emphasized that the researchers provide not a single source of information to correlate prairie-chicken behavior and noise levels from operational wind turbines.

Another statement is indicative of how fact is mixed with fictional opinions by the authors of this supposedly authoritative research article: "...our results suggest that birds close at leks close to the wind energy facility may obtain fitness benefits." This is another example of hyperbole, as “suggest” is not based upon fact but is nothing more than an opinion being conveyed, as there are no measured details presented on the physical condition of the prairie chickens at the leks studied.

There were no results indicated that when male chickens partake in display behaviors, and that their incessant action as a result of wind turbine activities may result in a lesser degree of physical fitness? It is well known that incessant behaviors are not healthy, and in the case of prairie-chickens, there may be a reduced physical fitness because of the being so constantly involved in breeding sorts of activities, as indicated in the research article.

The results are indicative of prairie-chicken occurrence in association with inert wind turbines, not actively operating wind turbines. For researchers to use a flawed research protocol to convey findings is simply not acceptable. At least the paper indicates that further studies are needed. A particular focus is the need to correlate behavior with measures of turbine noise levels.

This is a fine study of Greater Prairie-Chicken behavior, but there is no basis in fact on how operational wind turbines influence the behavior of these prairie grouse. The title of the article is accurate but misleading as findings are based upon distance from a wind turbine, not the distance from an operational wind turbine.

At least the paper indicates that further studies are needed. A particular focus is the need to correlate behavior with measures of turbine noise levels. This paper is interesting but its findings contain too many opinions – i.e., flaws in research design - for it to be used in any manner associated with an operational wind turbine facility in the Nebraska Sand Hills.

Citation: Indirect effects of an existing wind energy facility on lekking behavior of Greater Prairie-Chickens. Ethnology 122(2016): 419-429.

This article notably did not include the following significant article, which is another strike against the researchers. Other “Literature Cited” referred to birds other than prairie grouse.

Findings of Effects on Grassland Birds

A long-term and very essential study that needs to be considered is “Effects of wind-energy facilities on breeding grassland bird distributions” as published by Jill A. Shaffer and Deborah A. Buhl in 2015 in Conservation Biology, Volume 30, No. 1, 59–71. Work was done by scientists associated with the U.S. Geological Service. This is a portion of the abstract: “During 2003–2012, we monitored changes in bird density in 3 study areas in North Dakota and South Dakota (U.S.A.). We examined whether displacement or attraction occurred 1 year after construction (immediate effect) and the average displacement or attraction 2–5 years after construction (delayed effect). We tested for these effects overall and within distance bands of 100, 200, 300, and >300 m from turbines. We observed displacement for 7 of 9 species.”

Species studied included the Grasshopper Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, Upland Sandpiper and Killdeer which occur in upland grassland habitat of the Sandhills of Nebraska. Bobolink were also mentioned though they occur in lowland meadows which are not typical places where wind turbines could be placed.