A long-term study that began this spring will examine the effect of wind energy development on pronghorn.
During a helicopter capture in March, scientists with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Kauffman Lab at the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit fitted 80 pronghorn does that winter in the Shirley Basin with GPS collars.
Scientists plan to study the movement of the herd during the next six years. Meanwhile, the TB Flats Wind Energy Project is slated for construction about seven miles north of Medicine Bow in 2019, with completion scheduled for late 2020.
Game and Fish biologist Lee Knox said the study will follow the pronghorn for the coming months leading up to project construction and continue for a couple years after its completion.
With the exception of one small study, there’s no information about how wind energy development affects pronghorn, Knox said. Will they change their seasonal movements or habitat use because of the turbines? Will they avoid their preferred winter range because of new development?
“This was a good moment to try to get a definitive study,” Knox said. “Frankly, we don’t know whether it will have an effect or not.”
A previous study indicates wind energy development might not have a big impact on pronghorn, but scientists and land managers want to know more. Scientists have observed pronghorn co-existing with energy development, and even wind turbines, but that doesn’t mean the new infrastructure doesn’t change how the animals live.
“If it does have an effect, we would like to know that going forward with future wind farms, to help mitigate those effects,” Knox said.
On March 27, TB Flats Wind Energy LLC applied for a permit to construct the wind farm on about 52,000 acres of private and state land in Carbon County, with the goal of producing up to 500 megawatts of energy.
The proposal calls for 200 turbines, at least one substation and an operations building, plus access roads, an underground collector system and other infrastructure.
Knox said the proposed development covers just a portion of the Shirley Basin herd’s winter range, and most of the herd moves in and out of the area throughout the year.
Winter range is the area where big game herds congregate during the toughest months of the year. It is limited in size but offers food and protection when the rest of the habitat doesn’t, making it critical for survival.
The Shirley Basin herd is one of the largest in the world, mainly because the area hasn’t seen much development before now.
“It has been untouched, other than a few large ranches,” Knox said.
Wildlife managers don’t know a lot about how the herd moves, which will be one benefit of the study. Scientists will also be able to learn what habitat the herd uses, where its seasonal ranges are located and how the herd members move during the year.
“There will be a lot of good side information we’ll be able to get out of this project,” Knox said.