CASPER, Wyo. — For the first time in Wyoming, scientists are studying the impact of wind farms on wintering antelope and elk.
Researchers with the University of Wyoming collared 35 antelope in 2010 and another 17 in December to monitor their behavior on their winter range in the high desert near Medicine Bow. Scientists will collect their collars, loaded with data, in the spring.
It is part of a three-year study paid for by PacifiCorp as part of the permitting agreement specifically for the Dunlap Ranch.
“We want to know, did they lose some habitat? Do they still go there or do they avoid it?” said Jeff Beck, researcher and assistant professor of wildlife habitat restoration ecology at the University of Wyoming.
A similar study is being conducted on elk.
Hard winters usually limit animals to certain areas where wind blows snow away and food is available. If those are the same places where turbines exist, and elk or antelope avoid turbines, it could hurt the winter survival rate of the herds, Beck said.
“It is an area of research that we don’t have a lot of information on. These two studies are pioneering in terms of studying the potential effects.”
PacifiCorp contracted the study in mid-2009 as part of an agreement with the state to build 74 wind turbines in the first phase of the two-part project.
Officials at PacifiCorp worked with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the state and the university to design the study, said Travis Brown, an environmental compliance officer for wind energy for PacifiCorp Energy.
“There are lots of things asked for in the (permitting) process. We looked at this and knew this was something we needed to focus on,” he said.
Beck began trapping antelope in January 2010. The study didn’t start until after the first phase of wind turbine construction had begun, which means Beck also trapped antelope in a nearby study area that doesn’t have turbines. With the comparison, he can see how antelope respond in relation to existing barriers such as roads, fences and deep snow and if or how wind turbines change antelope behavior.
The collars record and save GPS positions for each animal and are programmed to fall off antelope necks in late April. The collars will
be collected, the data analyzed and final study results should be ready in mid-2013.
For elk, the study will take at least six years.
Elk winter range is in a slightly different place and won’t be affected by wind turbines until the second phase of PacifiCorps’ project, which is not yet scheduled for construction.
Beck collared 30 elk in 2010 and the collars will drop in April. Researchers will then collect the data, refurbish the collars and put them on another 30 elk in December.
The study will continue through and after construction.
Researchers collared only females in both of the studies because they have the most influence on population growth of the herd, Beck said.
The data could be particularly useful if a future project plans turbines in critical winter range and results shows that elk and antelope avoid turbines, Beck said.
The results from both studies will be used by PacifiCorp in future projects and possibly by other developers in and outside of Wyoming, Brown said.
“There will be additional wind farms and any company going in will want to know what they are getting themselves into,” Brown said.