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The Kingston Whig-Standard

Solar plant doesn't fly with bird experts; Stone Mills pasture home to rare species

May 1st, 2008

By Jennifer Pritchett

Local News - The Stone Mills pasture that's been chosen as the site for North America's largest solar farm may be an ideal location for turning the sun's rays into "green" energy, but it's also home to one of the planet's rarest birds.

The endangered eastern loggerhead shrike, of which there are believed to be less than 30 pairs left in the wild, is known to live on the Napanee plains, a grazed grassland largely used for cattle farming.

The construction of a 19-megawatt solar farm on 120 hectares of pasture alongside the Goodyear Tire plant near Napanee threatens the habitat of the endangered species, say bird experts, conservation organizations and Wildlife Preservation Canada, a charitable organization devoted to saving highly endangered animal species.

Loss of habitat has been the major cause of the eastern loggerhead shrike's decline in recent years.

Elaine Williams, executive director of Wildlife Preservation Canada, said she was surprised to hear about a groundbreaking ceremony that took place for the solar project last week, since there are at least one pair of loggerhead shrike nesting on the land and the Township of Stone Mills has been aware of the property's significance as an endangered-species habitat.

"The municipality knows about this - it has actually refused permits to private landowners who've wanted to sever their land or build [on loggerhead shrike habitat]," she said.

"They've been aware that this is nesting shrike area for years."

Williams pointed to both provincial and federal legislation, including the Ontario Endangered Species Act and Canada's Species At Risk Act, that protects such areas.

She said the provincial policy under the planning act prohibits land-use change or development within a 400-metre diameter of a nesting tree. Federal legislation under the Migratory Birds Convention contains a restriction on destroying a nesting tree.

"I guess both levels of government could go after the municipality and/or the company for violating both pieces of legislation," Williams said.

Though the restrictions have been applied inflexibly on other landowners in the past, she doesn't understand why they haven't been applied to the shrike habitat near Napanee, unless it's "for economic motives."

Debbie Thompson, reeve of the Township of Stone Mills, spoke in support of the project at the groundbreaking ceremony but was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Toronto-based SkyPower Corp. and SunEdison Canada, a subsidiary of SunEdison International of Beltsville, Md., plans to install 200,000 photovoltaic solar panels on the property and have the site running by late 2009, regardless of the presence of shrike habitat.

Len Jornlin, vice-president of SunEdison International, said he was aware of the bird issue but wasn't up to speed on the details.

"I know we did a study on that, but I would have to defer to the guys that did that study," he said. "The company is aware of the issue."

A joint statement from both firms sent via e-mail at 6 p.m. yesterday indicated that "Skypower and SunEdison care deeply about the environment" and that both firms will continue to investigate the bird issue.

"So far, only a small portion of the area has been identified as a potential eastern loggerhead shrike habitat," it stated. "We have been investigating with experts and have committed to the ministry to work closely with them on any mitigation measures if determined necessary."

Chris Grooms, an ecological consultant who once worked on the eastern loggerhead shrike recovery program, believes the firms should find a different site.

"There's got to be alternatives to picking on important endangered species habitat," he said. "It really does not make sense to try to save the environment on one hand by destroying an important part of it somewhere else.

"This solar farm could be dropped on some less-important piece of land."

Grooms said conservationists were trying to get the Nature Conservancy of Ontario to buy the property about eight years ago to protect the habitat, but the sale never happened.

He also said the federal government has spent money on the site to restore habitat for the shrike. Volunteers from the Kingston Field Naturalists did work there as well to restore the habitat.

It will be a "terrible thing" if the solar project is permitted to go ahead, Grooms said.

"I have no idea how they could have completely ignored the fact that there are breeding pairs of loggerhead shrike there and have been for years," he said.

Of the 25 pairs of eastern loggerhead shrike left in Ontario, about half are located in the Napanee area. The other half are spread throughout the Carden area near Orillia, the Pembroke-Smiths Falls-Renfrew areas, where there are three pairs, and on the Bruce Peninsula, where there is one pair .

The medium-sized, grey-and-white predatory songbird likes pasture or short grass for hunting. It's named for its disproportionately large "logger" head.

They are only found in five small isolated pockets in Ontario and Manitoba. They're no longer found in the Maritimes. In Quebec, where they were once common, no loggerhead shrikes have been found since 1995.