The removal of windmills improves the water supply for farm animals while improving the habitat of prairie birds

Windmills are an icon in the eastern Montana landscape, but often these structures no longer serve landowners, pasture management programs, or the ground-nesting birds that live near them. A new initiative that started last summer and benefits both cattle and birds is helping to dismantle these outdated structures and replace them with efficient solar-powered pumps.

Partners in this effort include private landowners, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), and American Bird Conservancy (ABC).

ABC seeks to reverse the decline in grassland bird populations on ranches without negatively impacting the local economy. The organization’s Northern Plains team works with landowners to support diverse, well-managed pasture landscapes with grazing techniques that improve soil health, improve water quality and yield, provide forage for farm animals, and meet the habitat needs of grassland birds and other wildlife species.

Longspur with chestnut collar, Copyright Glyn Sellors, from the Surfbirds Galleries

The results of a comprehensive 2019 survey of landowners in Prairie County, Montana, conducted by the NRCS field office in Terry, showed that landowners are concerned that their windmills are out of date. Not to be confused with wind turbines. These windmills are mechanical structures that are moved by the wind and sit on wooden or metal towers 20 to 40 feet high. These devices are specifically used for pumping groundwater in tanks for animal husbandry. Solar-powered pumps now dominate the market, while parts for the functionality of the archaic windmill systems are increasingly difficult to find.

A landowner’s ability to keep grasses for both livestock and wildlife depends on having enough reliable sources of water. On calm, hot summer days when the wind speed is insufficient to keep traditional windmills running, landowners must move their animals to other areas where there is enough water to support them. Heavy use of these areas leads to grass depletion and ultimately the land has to pause grazing so that vegetation can regrow. In addition, the tall windmill towers offer perches for predators of declining prairie birds like the longspur with chestnut collars, which puts additional strain on the already dwindling populations.

NRCS worked with ABC to develop a Targeted Implementation Plan (TIP) to improve the prairie bird habitat while addressing the needs of animal owners by removing windmills. The NFWF’s Northern Grassland Restoration Incentives Program funded the dismantling and removal of windmills from the landscape. In their place, solar-powered pumps were installed with funding from the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The NFWF also funded bird protection strips to prevent birds of prey from sitting on the pumps’ solar panels.

A benchmark target was achieved in summer 2020: ten windmills were removed from the landscape. As a replacement, solar pumps will provide a more reliable summer water supply for farm animals and enable better grassland management, improving the breeding habitat for the Chestnut Collar Longspur and Baird’s Sparrow covering a total of 6,400 acres in southern Prairie County, Montana. In addition to the windmills removed with the funding, several landowners removed others from their property at their own expense.

The project will continue in the southern part of the district until 2021. Going forward, the Terry NRCS Field Office plans to apply for funding to implement similar projects in northern Prairie County in 2022 and 2023. The TIP continues to meet with great interest and large applications for future projects.

This successful partnership has provided an example of the positive results of working together and encouraged more landowners to sign up for the next round of TIP funding in Prairie County. Future projects could bring similar projects to landowners and land managers in other areas of Montana, as well as Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

“NRCS saw an opportunity to help ranchers solve problems with ground-nesting birds and livestock in Prairie County through a focused implementation plan, and ABC is a committed partner helping landowners achieve those efforts,” said Kathy Meidinger, District Conservationist in Terry.