Closed Circuit

​By Alyssa Fellow

Around two years ago, I started as a biologist in WAPA’s Upper Great Plains region. My supervisor challenged me to come up with a regionwide biological strategy, similar to that which has been pursued for archaeology resources.

The Upper Great Plains service area is home to many federally listed threatened and endangered species. These include the piping plover bird, the Topeka shiner fish and the Dakota skipper butterfly, to name just a few.

However, while certain species of concern occur naturally within UGP’s regional boundaries, the geographic spread of WAPA’s predominantly linear infrastructure cannot overlap biologically sensitive areas—such as breeding locations—of these species. Further, even where there is overlap in biologically sensitive areas and UGP infrastructure, WAPA’s actions may not have the potential to impact these plants or animals or their habitats. A number of laws, rules and regulations, including the Endangered Species Act, require WAPA to avoid impacting biologically sensitive areas of these species.

Additionally, threats to species of concern may be relatively well documented in professional scientific journals, but many threats or related recovery actions are not relevant to WAPA’s authority. Therefore, spatial synthesis of actual species sensitive-area occurrence data, when viewed through a filter of relevant threats, creates an opportunity for a simplified approach to assessing biological risk.

In an effort to build a ground-based framework, UGP has taken initial steps toward developing an assessment that can inform future program strategies and decision making for projects.

Entering into agreements with seven states and federal partners enabled UGP to assemble known species-use locations, which the region can then present visually on a map for easy understanding.

The reference map streamlines the approach to analyzing biological risk by classifying potential for conflict into high, medium, or low categories. The “heat” map overlays species and habitat occurrence data with infrastructure locations. This map is paired with a cross reference table that indicates relevant threats or recovery actions, so that line crew members or project planners can make use of them.

State fish and wildlife agencies are often the stewards of maintaining and protecting the data about actual biologically sensitive areas. When species occur on public lands, additional data is sometimes found in Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service records. The Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey also maintain protected-species datasets, often derived from species-specific research projects.

In a major and ongoing initiative, these partnerships were leveraged in order for UGP to collect actual biological presence data points.

These data are then extensively sorted and merged, which is how UGP is arriving at regionwide maps detailing relative biological risk areas.

After wading through hundreds of pages of recovery plans, UGP identified recovery-action items associated with WAPA authorities for several species of concern within the region. Additionally, after sifting through decades of foundational literature, UGP thoughtfully eliminated irrelevant threats from consideration.

Critical to this effort was an understanding of the potential effects resulting from WAPA’s actions and a working knowledge of how pertinent laws are executed across the geographic and political landscape.

This effort aligns with WAPA’s core values to “Seek. Share. Partner,” and “Respect self, others and the environment.” Maps and other resources like these will make it much easier for the region to see where potential conflicts with species of concern might occur, and also how to avoid or mitigate them.

Note: Fellow is a biologist.

Example species of concern

Small bird with a black tipped orange beak and feet and brown-white feathers

Piping plover

Species information: Can be found nesting on sparsely vegetated sand or gravel beaches adjacent to alkali wetlands and on sparsely vegetated interior riverine sand bars. Peak nesting extends from late April through August, with the majority taking place in May. Fledging time is 21 days.

Relevant recovery actions: Reduce transmission line collision. Avoid breeding disturbance.

A pair of black and bright orange patterned beetles

American burying beetle

Species information: Prime habitat consists of low wetland meadows dotted with old growth cottonwoods. Sub-irrigated, well-watered soils. Little or no cropland visible. Poor habitat consists of low-lying grassland. Heavily cropped. Areas of blowout and floodplain. Potential for excessive light pollution.

Relevant recovery actions: Contact Environment for habitat evaluation and to determine need for surveys. Mow at least two weeks prior to the commencement of ground disturbing activities, from March 15 through Oct. 31. Mow construction areas such that the vegetation is less than eight inches. Mow weekly to maintain height, if necessary. Reduce use of pesticides, herbicides and lighting. Remove carcasses. Survey for additional populations.

A bat with a small face and enormous ears

Northern long-eared bat

Species information: Peak activity is generally 30 minutes before sunset to 30 minutes after sunrise Aug. 15 through Oct. 15. Summer habitat appears to be strongly correlated with mature forested areas in the floodplains of major rivers like the Missouri River or prairie river drainages west of the Missouri River with a cottonwood component. Winter hibernacula locations are less documented but expected to be within 50 miles of summer habitat. Peak activity during fall migration is highest-risk time for wind farm fatalities.

Relevant recovery actions: Contact Environment before cutting trees. Identify roost sites. Do not cut roost trees. Avoid cutting dead trees and impacting streams. Reduce wind turbine fatalities through feathering of blades below cut-in speeds and increasing cut-in speeds to 16.4 feet per second.

A brown-grey, mossy green tinted butterfly on a purple flower

Dakota skipper

Species information: June and July: Females lay eggs. Ten days for pupation. Adults die. From hatch to fall: Larvae shelter at or below the ground surface and emerge at night to feed. Fall: Larvae become dormant. Winter: Shelter at or just below ground level. Spring: Emerge.

Relevant recovery actions: Avoid habitat disturbance June through August. Promote native vegetation and report weeds. Avoid broadcast applications of pesticides and herbicides. Mow infrequently and leave at least eight inches of stubble.

A brown-orange eagle standing on a cliff looking left

Golden eagle

Species information: Jan, Feb: Nest construction. March, April: Egg laying. March to May: Incubation. April, May: Hatching. May to July: Nestling. June, July: Fledging.

Relevant recovery actions: From Jan. 15 through July 31, do not agitate or bother to a degree that could cause injury; interference with normal breeding, feeding or sheltering behavior; or nest abandonment. No aircraft within 1,000 meters of nest.

photo of a whopping crane standing on a rock ledge

Whooping crane

Species information: Peak migration April and October. Black wing tips, legs sticking out.

Relevant recovery actions: Diminish collision threat with powerlines. Maximize visibility of lines in use areas. Evaluate shield and fiber add-ons in rebuilds within one mile of stopover habitat.

Photo of Topeka Shine, a small fish

Topeka shiner

Species information: Spawning from late May to mid-August, depending on water temperature. Some located in degraded streams with silt substrates, off-channel backwater areas, borrow pits and sloughs connected to occupied streams.

Relevant recovery actions: Ensure bridge or culvert fish passage at stream crossings. Avoid water flow alteration and sedimentation delivery.

Last modified on March 6th, 2024