When Wes Graham pulls up to a right-of-way, he doesn’t see poles and lines.

“The first thing I see is wildlife habitat,” says the right-of-way manager and field biologist for Cooperative Energy, the G&T headquartered in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

And that’s intentional.

“If we as co-ops can start looking at a right-of-way as part of the ecosystem and managing it as such, I think the regulatory agencies will see our efforts as beneficial,” Graham says.

For nearly 15 years, the G&T has been managing more than 1,800 miles of transmission line right-of-way to serve as natural habitat with native grasses and pollinator plants.

They accomplish this with integrated vegetation management (IVM)—a flexible mix of mowing and herbicide application—which could prove advantageous as the federal government considers listing the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently approved a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) that encourages IVM practices to avoid harsher requirements to protect the iconic pollinator.

Actions by co-ops that enrolled in the CCAA by the end of May will be factored into the agency’s listing decision set for Dec. 15.

“The conservation measures required of enrollees in the CCAA are consistent with many aspects of IVM, such as encouraging targeted herbicide applications and removal of woody plants to foster suitable habitat,” says Stephanie Crawford, NRECA’s senior regulatory manager.

“For those co-ops that are already implementing IVM, we do not expect that they would need to make many changes to what they have already been doing.”

The CCAA calls for creating and maintaining monarch habitat in rights-of-way and other properties and conservation measures that reduce or remove threats to the species.

The agreement pardons participants for “incidental take” or the unintentional harming, harassing, or killing of a listed species, in this case the monarch.

Many electric co-ops already have taken conservation actions along the monarch’s migratory corridor that stretches from Mexico into Texas, through the Midwest to Canada.

Andy Olson, supervisor of forestry services at East Central Energy based in Braham, Minnesota, sees “no downside” to enrolling in the CCAA.

“Our co-op has adopted a strategy to be in early,” Olson says. “Even if the monarch doesn’t get listed, we want to be a part of it. The benefits far outweigh any benefit of not being a part of it.”

East Central Energy has deployed IVM for its rights-of-way since 2005. Now, the co-op is on a five-year IVM cycle, where unwanted vegetation is removed, edges are pruned, and herbicide is applied to specific target species.

The common practice of mowing only the tops of woody plants can build density and increase the cost of right-of-way management. Plus, clearing the land under the power lines indiscriminately could wipe out native species.

“IVM has helped us to reduce stem density per acre,” Olson says. “Now that we are on our third or fourth cycle in this approach, there’s far, far less work to do in the right-of-way.”

Foliage native to the midwestern prairie has returned to the rights-of-way, he says, flatlining costs of materials, equipment, and labor for IVM.

“We did IVM originally because we thought it made financial sense, and now we are finding other great benefits as well,” Olson says.

The co-op believes the resulting ecological diversity will be beneficial should the monarch be listed.

“If we treat the unwanted plants and avoid treating beneficial plants—native grasses, pollinator plants, and milkweed—the end result is a self-sustaining ecosystem that the pollinators need, and one that is compatible with overhead conductors,” Olson says. “The desirable native plants become wonderful assets.”

East Central Energy’s rights-of-way are in “a condition where we do not have to do much differently in order to comply with the CCAA,” he says.

The road to this achievement was not without hurdles.

First was getting the board of directors and upper management to accept methods other than mechanical clearing. Projected savings helped gain support. After upfront costs, IVM has greatly reduced the amount of inputs required for upkeep, according to Olson.

Then there were members and right-of-way property owners to win over, which took the work of a volunteer member resource council, open to all and briefed by experts in the field. In 2005, with the council’s unanimous recommendation, the board changed the co-op’s bylaws to support IVM and herbicide application, as well as a fee-based alternative maintenance program.

Should the property owner still insist on mowing only, the co-op adds a fee “because mechanical maintenance is usually not the industry best practice,” Olson says.

Part of the landscape

At Cooperative Energy, Graham cautions that co-ops embarking on IVM should not skimp on the initial labor and materials needed or “it will cost you in the end.” He also advises co-ops to design an IVM program that is flexible and urges them to work with what nature’s already given them.

“People scratch their heads because we don’t plant wildflowers. We don’t plant native grasses. We utilize the seed bank that naturally occurs in the soil,” he says. “If we play our cards right, we can manipulate what is there, enhance it, and it will be beneficial to the co-ops as well as the wildlife and pollinators.”

Graham points to a project where the G&T needed to change out poles on federal forest land, which required an endangered species survey to ensure the work wouldn’t harm the threatened gopher tortoise.

They found that the big-shelled reptiles had a tendency to dig their burrows in the path created by line crews during routine maintenance, which increased the possibility of harming the keystone species. When the crews began using herbicide to selectively remove undesirable vegetation throughout the right-of-way, it also created a safer, more suitable habitat for the tortoise.

“We discovered that as the right-of-way was converted from dense, woody vegetation to an herbaceous and grassy environment, the gopher tortoise seemed to migrate away from the center line and to the edges,” Graham says.

Since then, the gopher tortoise population in the forest has increased.

“We were creating habitat to support an endangered species, unknowingly at first,” Graham says.

The success story helped solidify Cooperative Energy’s move to IVM.

“Instead of managing a right-of-way as an oddity, just manage it as part of the landscape and let Mother Nature run its course,” Graham says. “The more common sense we use in our vegetation management, the less regulation will be forced on us. It’s working for us, and I think it can work for everyone.