Wind Power Development In Dakotas Affecting Numbers In Prime Waterfowl Nesting Habitat, DU Study Finds

A study by Ducks Unlimited found that wind power development adversely affected duck numbers in prime nesting habitat in the Dakotas. Photo of mallards courtesy of Kelly Welch of Willmar.

WILLMAR – Wind power development in the Dakotas is adversely affecting waterfowl numbers in prime nesting habitat, new research by Ducks Unlimited shows.

Kaylan Carrlson, DU’s manager of conservation planning for the Great Plains Region, outlined some of the findings of the research during the organization’s state convention in Willmar on Feb. 10.

The study looked at areas of North and South Dakota where data collected over the past 30 years shows the highest density of waterfowl nests, often more than 100 nests per square mile.

Carrlson told her audience that if you overlay a map showing the areas of North and South Dakota with the highest density of waterfowl nesting, it almost exactly coincides with a map of the areas in the two states with the highest potential for wind power.

The study examined the five major dabbling ducks:  mallards, gadwalls, blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, and northern pintail. On average, they found 20 percent fewer birds on “impact” sites- those with wind power development- than the reference sites without turbines, according to Carrlson. Gadwall proved to be the most sensitive of the species, she said.

While there is an adverse impact, it is not considered to be of a high enough magnitude to merit changes in how Ducks Unlimited conducts conservation work in the area, said Carrlson. The study was undertaken so that Ducks Unlimited can get the “most duck for its buck” when making decisions on spending for conservation efforts.

The wind study research was conducted over three years. It involved looking at four different sites. Two were considered impact sites, where wind power development had occurred. Two other sites were used as references where wind power development had not occurred, but the habitat was considered an ecological match. Ducks Unlimited wasn’t able to do a “before and after’’ analysis of wind development sites, Carrlson said.

Maps showing the highest wind power potential in the Dakotas are nearly identical to those showing the highest waterfowl nesting density.

She pointed out that energy development in the prairie pothole region has essentially exploded in the last 10 years, both in terms of new wind turbines and oil and gas field development. All said, the energy development has the potential to impact upwards of one million breeding duck pairs in the nesting habitat of the prairie pothole region, according to her presentation.

Ducks Unlimited has also completed a four-year study of the impact that gas and oil field development has on duck numbers. Gas and oil field development in the Bakken Field is occurring in an area of North Dakota and Montana that has some of the highest waterfowl nesting density in the prairie pothole region.

The Ducks Unlimited Study involved extensive work in the field, and looked at both nesting and brood numbers in thousands of wetlands over the course of four years. The researchers counted nests and birds in areas where oil wells could be as numerous as eight within a square mile of a given wetland, or non-existent.

Carrlson said an analysis of that work is not yet completed. She could not answer whether oil and gas development or wind development presents the greater threat to waterfowl numbers in the region.

Her presentation followed a message to convention attendees on how we are placing greater demands than ever on our lands to produce food, fiber, energy, and to provide clean water and places for recreation. It’s making the work of conservation more important and challenging than ever.

Kaylan Carrlson

“We need to bring people together to look for solutions that recognize all of those values,’’ said Steve Adair, director of operations, Ducks Unlimited Great Plains Region.

“I want to be clear that we have a crisis today in the prairie pothole region,’’ said Adair. He said the pressures are especially growing in the Dakotas and southern Saskatchewan, Canada.

“There are forces that want to drain more of those wetlands in a very aggressive way, that want to plow up more of our grasslands. And we need to come up with solutions to help with that,’’ he said.

This year, Ducks Unlimited will be researching waterfowl broods in crop dominated landscapes of Iowa and Minnesota. Duck pairs nest and raise broods in wetlands in crop dominated landscapes, said Carrlson. And it’s known that wetlands in crop dominated areas provide equivalent value to waterfowl as those in grass dominated landscapes. But there is not comparable information on how waterfowl broods raised in crop dominated landscapes fare as compared to those in grassland areas.