Friday, May 13, 2016

Chaplin Wind Project will be going ahead

the 79 turbines planned will be directly north of Chaplin Lake,
one of Canada's Eight Hemispheric Shorebird Reserves

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment received an unprecedented number of submissions, 137 in fact, expressing concern and alarm over the proposed wind energy project north of Chaplin Lake, including strong statements from the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, Nature Canada, and other conservation groups.

Regardless, all indications are that the Chaplin project will be going through more or less as planned, with 79 turbines 4.5 kms straight north of the lake. Even more disturbing, 24 of them will destroy most of 62 hectares of native grassland. The 4.5 km setback from the wetland is right on the borderline of recommended setbacks and may still prove to be a source of embarrassment for the Province if a great many bats and birds are killed by the turbines, but for now the decision to site 24 turbines on native prairie is the biggest single threat posed by this wind energy development.

Besides the footprint of each turbine and its gravel pad, there will be roads with a lot of truck traffic going to and from the installations. Though many transmission lines will be buried (which will also introduce weeds and fragment the native grassland), there will be some aerial transmission lines along roads. With species at risk such as Ferruginous Hawks nesting and hunting ground squirrels in the area, all of these forces degrading the habitat should be enough to force any responsible government to move the 24 turbines off of native prairie.

Ferruginous hawks depend on the grasslands north of Chaplin Lake 
(image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

Instead, we are expecting that any day now Minister Herb Cox will announce his approval of the project more or less as is.

His own people, biologists and others inside his ministry, have no doubt advised him to move the project off of native grassland but their advice is falling on deaf ears. Within the political limits imposed by the Minister--i.e. the project must be approved and no turbines will be moved off native grass or farther away from the flight paths of Chaplin Lake's teeming bird life--public servants in the ministry have very likely been scrambling to come up with some way to reduce the harm of this egregiously bad choice for siting a major wind project.

Thanks to their hard work, there will likely be some mitigation and monitoring measures announced with the approval decision. Unfortunately, as the ministry's biologists know better than anyone, mitigation and monitoring after you have sacrificed the habitat is never enough to make up for the disruption and degradation caused by such a development.

The proponent, Algonquin, will want to hire its own consulting engineering company to do the monitoring--someone like Stantec--because they know that a consultant they hire is unlikely to find any data that would require them to shut down or move turbines. That kind of self-regulation, with poorly designed data-gathering models and often unqualified researchers, is unacceptable in a development this controversial.

If the province really wants to show us that they are doing their best to protect the bats and birds, and finding ways to site wind projects properly, they should make the proponent secure truly independent monitoring by researchers from a university or some other third party organization.

If the Chaplin project goes ahead--and all indications are that it will--the Province needs to ensure that real scientists with no connection to the proponent are engaged to design, conduct and oversee studies that are legitimately aimed at figuring out the impacts of putting up so many turbines on native grassland and north of a world class shorebird reserve.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Swans killed by energy infrastructure this spring

Trumpeter swan killed by transmission lines at Frank Lake (photo by Mike Sturk,
see below for more images)

We are an energy-intensive civilization and whether it is solar and wind or oil and gas, gathering the kind of power we use every day seems to require a lot of man-made infrastructure on the landscape. With the decision on the Chaplin Wind Project looming (the Environment Ministry has called a meeting on May 9th, inviting a select group of conservation NGOs who commented on the Environmental Impact Statement), some news out of Alberta provides a powerful cautionary tale.

While the turbines themselves have to be sited on disturbed lands with little ecological value, this story from Alberta demonstrates that is important to ensure that the associated transmission facilities carrying the electricity away are also sited carefully.

The following story showing that transmission lines are killing Trumpeter swans at Frank Lake Alberta, is based on a report by (and presented here with the permission of) biologist Greg Wagner, one of Alberta's most vigilant defenders of prairie habitats. A big thanks to Greg for bringing this issue to public attention and for letting his words appear in this post.

Frank Lake is, like Chaplin Lake in Saskatchewan, a recognized Important Bird Area. Greg says that it is one of the few Environmentally Significant Areas in the Municipal District of Foothills

It is also a major Ducks Unlimited Canada project, built with funding under the North American Waterfowl Plan. It is arguably the single most important bird habitat area south and west of Calgary.

The lake is also used as a major spring and fall staging area by both Tundra and Trumpeter Swans as highlighted on eBird, which is publicly accessible online. This data also shows that Basin 2, and to a lesser extent, Basin 3, are the most important areas on the lake for spring and fall staging swans. The number of staging Trumpeter Swans has also increased significantly over the last decade as the migration route of this species has expanded eastward.

Despite the areas importance for wildlife, AltaLink has recently built new transmission lines around the lake. These lines, along with historic lines now surround the western half of the lake. It is well known that transmission lines can act as large mortality sources for habitat areas that are used by large numbers of birds such as wetlands like Frank Lake (e.g., Crowder and Rhodes 2001, Rioux et al. 2013). Large less maneuverable birds, with heavy wing loading, like swans, cranes, pelican and herons, are know to be particularly susceptible to transmission strikes, particularly to single top wires.. Both the Alberta Trumpeter Swan Recovery Plan 2012-2017  and the most recent Alberta Trumpeter Swan Status Report indicate that 

"Electrocution and other injuries from collisions with power lines are believed to be the most significant causes of mortality for adult trumpeter swans in Alberta. The Grande Prairie area appears to have the highest recorded number of mortalities with as many as 6-10 confirmed cases each year.” 

Beyersbergen et al. 2009 also observed the following related to the large nesting colony (up to 50,000 pairs) of Franklin’s Gulls at Frank Lake: "There is a large power-line intersecting the colony on Frank Lake. While performing nest counts on the lake, we noticed a number of dead gulls directly under the powerline. No mortality counts from the power-line were conducted so we do not know how many birds die each year due to collision with the line and towers.”

Given the amount of information available on the impacts of transmission lines around wetlands, it is somewhat incredible that transmission lines would be built so close to the lake. The line at the southwest corner of the lake could actually have been set back further from the existing line, which it will replace. Instead it was built closer. Reflective tags have been put on the top wire of the new transmission lines as a means to mitigate collisions. But it is unclear how effective these have been given current mortality levels. AltaLink also conducted radar and visual surveys in tandem on Basin 1 on September 30, and October 12 and 18, 2013 (Stantec 2012). Unfortunately, these studies were done on Basin 1, which receives minor swan use relative to Basin 2, and were done before large numbers of swans arrive at the lake.

Furthermore, it isn’t like there are vast amounts of wildlife habitat in the High River area. Frank Lake is more or less it. The lake could have been easily avoided by transmission line development. After all, the first rule of environmental management is to avoid potential impacts where feasible. It was certainly feasible to avoid putting transmission lines near Frank Lake in this case.

Known swan mortality at Frank Lake over the last two years is as follows:

  • 19 March 2015, three carcasses found under transmission line at basin 1 of Frank Lake. These all appeared to be Trumpeter Swans, but this could not be confirmed because the carcasses were lying on thin ice (see attached pictures taken by Mike Sturk ). A Snowy Owl carcass was also found under the transmission line (See page 15 of this issue of the Western Producer)
  • Two splashes of white feathers, including large primaries, with no carcass present were found near the blind at Basin 1 in Spring 2016 before 4 April. Another splash of white feathers, with no carcass present was also found under the transmission line on the north side of Basin 1 at this time. Splashes of white feathers were found around all other carcasses at Frank Lake.
  • 4 April 2016 – one Trumpeter Swan found dead under the transmission line at basin 1 west of the blind (see article from High River Online)
  • 11 April 2016 – two Trumpeter Swans found dead under the transmission line at basin 3 of Frank Lake (see photos below).
  • 12 April 2016 – three Trumpeter Swans found dead under the transmission line in NE23-18-28-W4M west of basin 2 of Frank Lake (see photos below)
  • 14 April 2016 – another Trumpeter Swan carcass was found under the transmission line at basin 3. No photo taken.
  • 29 April 2016 – one injured Trumpeter Swan observed at the observation point north of the blind at Basin 1. The bird had a difficult time walking on land, and laboured to get into the water. A dead swan, presumably the same bird, was found at the same location the next day (see photo below).
  • Transmission line strikes have potentially killed eleven swans at Frank Lake during spring migration in 2016. This level of mortality is higher than the level of transmission strike mortality previously reported for the Grande Prairie area.

This level of mortality is probably much higher. The dead swans and feather splashes that were found were situated in publicly accessible areas around the lake, or in fields that could be observed from roads and trails around the lake. Such areas probably represent 10% of the area around the lake traversed by transmission towers. Simple extrapolation suggests that the actual level of mortality could be ten times higher. Predators could also have removed carcasses before the were detected.

At least 1,250 swans staging at Basin 2 also took daily, if not twice daily, trips to a field to the southwest in SW13-18-28-W4M. These birds would have had to travel through two separate sets of transmission lines. However, because these lines were located on private land and away from roads, there is now way to ascertain how many birds might have died from transmission line strikes at this location.

The loss of swans at Frank Lake is sad. The recovery of the Trumpeter Swan from about a hundred birds to thousands of birds is one of the great North American wildlife conservation triumphs. The sight of several swans staging at Basin 2 is truly stirring and has huge ecotourism potential. But the birds now face new risks from obviously silly land use decision making.

Farmers in southern Alberta have a saying about AltaLink - “AltaLink would rather do things wrong and apologize later rather than doing things right in the first place. This certainly applies in the case of the swans at Frank Lake. But, as long as Berkshire Hathaway is making a profit, things will probably work out. Yes, that was sarcasm.

Sincerely yours,

Greg Wagner, B.Sc.
President and Senior Wildlife Biologist
Athene Environmental Limited

Greg's concerns seem very reasonable to me and coincide with the science in a study released this spring in The Condor, a peer-reviewed journal of international repute, which says

"Given that all infrastructure types result in direct loss or fragmentation of habitat and may affect the distribution of predators, indirect effects mediated by these mechanisms may be pervasive across energy facilities. When considered together, the direct and indirect effects of renewable energy facilities, and the transmission lines serving these facilities, are likely cumulative. Ultimately, cross-facility and cross-taxon meta-analyses will be necessary to fully understand the cumulative impacts of energy infrastructure on birds. Siting these facilities in a way that minimizes avian impacts will require an expanded understanding of how birds perceive facilities and the mechanisms underlying direct and indirect effects."

All images below by Greg Wagner and Mike Sturk:

Thursday, April 28, 2016

SkipTheChewing, circa 2019

in the future meal time will be much simpler
Government of Saskatchewan Media release, December 10, 2019

Today the Government of Saskatchewan announced it has committed $4 Million in funding to support an innovative start-up that will take the province to the next step in food delivery systems.

“Skip the Dishes was a great success back in 2016,” said Premier Wall at today’s news conference, “but, as you know, we are all about legacy and we wanted to head into the next election with something Saskatchewan will remember.”

“With busy families and the increasing complexity of our lives today, every minute counts. Many people are just finding it hard to sneak in a meal—even if someone else does the cooking and delivers it to your home, you still have all that cutting and chewing. SkipTheChewing will address that shortfall.” Wall said. 

“So when this opportunity presented itself, we looked at the dollars and cents and we could see that it was a natural extension of the food distribution efficiencies that Saskatchewan is so famous for. Skilled people grow the food for us, process and package it, and then prepare it as a meal and deliver it to your door—that is all good, but this is a chance for us to invest in the next value-add to the whole system from farm to mouth.”

SkipTheChewing’s CEO, Jade Soylent described the health benefits of their outsourcing services. “The data is showing that people are developing gastrointestinal diseases ranging from ulcers to colitis simply because they are rushing and not properly chewing their food. We say let the experts do the work for you. We have a full suite of nutritious and tasty options for our customers—from our mastication artisans who will pre-chew your food to your specifications on site, to shakes made of 'Just Like Angus' beef and locally-sourced potatoes, to our daybreak intravenous package, with your daily nutrition delivered at bedside while you wake to the gentle sounds of Zen gongs and ocean waves.”

Premier Wall concluded saying “this new investment from the province will help us to create good jobs while making it easier for our people to get the nourishment they need and then get on with their day. Think of the good things you can do with all that time you’ll save.”

Monday, April 18, 2016

Montana helps Alberta bolster its Sage-Grouse population

Alberta Lek
Greater Sage-Grouse on Lek this spring
Alberta may be struggling economically but the Province is following through on commitments to help get the Greater Sage-Grouse onto the road to recovery. The following comes directly from an Alberta government news release that came out today (be sure to check out the video below showing scenes from the capture and release): 
Alberta welcomes the addition of 38 sage-grouse hens from Montana, which is part of an effort to strengthen the province’s population.
The transfer involved a team of biologists from Alberta Environment and Parks and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. The birds were captured in Montana and have been released at three mating sites in southeastern Alberta.
“Alberta is grateful to Montana for this international co-operation and the opportunity to share knowledge and resources that will give the sage-grouse an opportunity to thrive in our province. This initiative is vital to Alberta’s continued species-at-risk recovery efforts.” Shannon Phillips, Minister of Environment and Parks
“We are pleased to assist Alberta with their sage-grouse conservation work, especially given the trans-boundary nature of the species. We all benefit from rebuilding sage-grouse habitat and populations across their range.” Jeff Hagener, Director, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
The sage-grouse will continue to be monitored with GPS transmitters to make sure they are adapting to their new surroundings and provide data on their movements, including breeding, nesting, and brood rearing.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

What kind of government would the prairie want?

What has the Saskatchewan Government done lately to protect the grassland
habitat of our Provincial Bird, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, and the many other
animals and plants that depend on  natural prairie landscapes?

A media release from Public Pastures--Public Interest

[don't miss the satellite image at the bottom of the release. It shows a piece of Crown land the Province sold after removing it from the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act.]


Thursday March 31, 2016

REGINA, SK: A lot has been said in this provincial election about human needs – but what about our endangered prairie grassland and its inhabitants?

The prairie ecosystem is one of the most altered and threatened in North America – only 20% of Saskatchewan’s native prairie remains, and in some areas, such as the Regina Plains, less than 1% remains.

“Saskatchewan has the largest proportion of Canada’s Prairie Ecozone, and therefore the greatest responsibility to conserve it,” said Trevor Herriot, PPPI spokesperson. “Yet in our election campaigns the subject is seldom mentioned. This is a vital topic – we should be talking about what the prairie and its rare creatures might want to see from our elected representatives.”

As well as providing a home for more than thirty Species at Risk, including mammals, birds, butterflies, snakes, frogs and toads, grasses and wildflowers, the province’s grasslands store carbon, protect water quality and prevent soil loss.

“Our native grasslands, particularly on Crown land, are part of Canada’s natural heritage, as precious as our northern lakes and forests” Herriot said. “Do we want to rob our children and grandchildren of the chance to know the prairie and its gifts or do we want to take measures today to ensure that those gifts will be there a generation from now?”

There are a great number of things that can be done.

A government that cared for and supported our grasslands heritage would:

1. Commit to retain and not sell any Crown land with native grassland, including Community Pastures.

2. Work with ranchers, First Nations, and conservation groups to devise a plan to protect all remaining native prairie from cultivation and other forms of development.

3. Monitor and enforce Conservation Easements to prevent the breaking of native grassland and protect other grassland areas that buffer native remnants. Once native prairie is broken it cannot be restored.

4. Conduct a complete inventory of our remaining native grasslands to determine how much remains of each grassland ecotype.

5. Create Saskatchewan legislation that recognizes the value of our grasslands, as has been done in other provinces.

6. Retain all grassland and Aspen parkland Crown lands originally listed under the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act – do not sell them.

7. Make public the criteria of the Crown Land Ecological Assessment Tool and the reasons for each proposed land parcel re-classification and provide opportunities for public input on the decision.

8. Rather than lowering the standards for all grasslands to the lowest common denominator, make an effort to raise the overall quality of the Provincial Pastures and Co-op Pastures to the high standard of the PFRA-managed Community Pastures.

9. Ask the federal government to halt the transfer of any more PFRA Community Pastures to the province, administer a Strategic Environmental Assessment and review the decision to end the Community Pasture Program.

10.Work with the federal government concerning additional resources needed to manage public values on Community Pastures such as: biodiversity, carbon sequestration, ecosystem conservation, and public access.

11.Support and work with ranchers to conserve and protect grassland ecosystems, but do not off-load all public responsibilities for maintaining public benefits onto their shoulders.

12.Involve Saskatchewan’s range experts to allow ranchers to do the best job possible in maintaining functioning prairie. Saskatchewan has over 200 grass species and varieties and most of these are in the prairie zone.  These species are valuable for providing seeds now and will be more so in the future.

An example
This quarter-section was recently declared of low ecological value and sold. Yet it is an island of habitat in a sea of cropland and would definitely be habitat for many wildlife species.
this quarter section of native grassland and aspen was removed from WHPA and sold

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Election primer--ten reasons Saskatchewan's grasslands matter

Prickly Pear Cactus at Caledonia--Elmsthorpe PFRA Pasture
Less than ten days to go before Saskatchewan people head to the polls to elect their provincial government for the next four years. So far in the public campaign, at least as it appears in the media, we have heard almost nothing about Saskatchewan's environmental issues.

In particular, we are hearing little discussion of how prospective MLAs would work to protect our most endangered landscapes and their biodiversity from the market forces that threaten them--land and commodity prices driving more cultivation of native grass remnants, inadequate regulation and oversight of resource development, and public policy and market realities that do not foster good stewardship among private landowners and leaseholders on native grassland.

It must be said that the provincial NDP platform does make a clear statement about the former PFRA pastures under its agricultural section: "We will insist that the new federal government halt the process of ending the community pasture program, and collaborate with pasture patrons to more cost-effectively manage pastures that have already transitioned."

Their environmental platform also says they "will develop a Nature Index of Saskatchewan, to measure, track and publicly report on the state of Saskatchewan’s environment, modeled on the Norwegian Nature Index." They also promise to implement a comprehensive biodiversity action plan.
and "reverse the Sask. Party’s cuts to environmental protection."
sunflowers on native grassland

Meanwhile, groups like Public Pastures--Public Interest, the Community Pastures Patrons Association, and the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan have been working to get grasslands in general and the PFRA pasture issues in particular onto the agenda of political candidates. This week APAS joined with The Western Producer to host a dialogue with the incumbent minister of Agriculture, the Hon. Lyle Stewart, and representatives of the other political parties. They called it "Why Agriculture Matters." The forum went well and the Community Pastures Patrons Association of Saskatchewan asked whether the candidates' parties would be willing to consider putting $1 to 2 million into the management of the public benefits of the community pastures being transferred to Saskatchewan.

All of the candidates other than Mr. Stewart responded to the question by indicating that they would support such an investment in the wellbeing of these lands. Rick Swenson of the Progressive Conservative Party and Cathy Sproule of the NDP gave particularly strong answers in favour of some funding for the transitioned pastures.

This week Joanne Havelock, of Public Pastures--Public Interest, sent out to prospective candidates and to PPPI supporters some terrific material to use in talking to other voters or to candidates about the conservation issues around publicly-owned grasslands. You can find it all here at the PPPI website, but my favourite part is a list of Ten Reaseons Why Public Grasslands Matter. Here it is:

1. Because they are rare and threatened by cultivation and other kinds of development
Canada has its own threatened Amazonian forest - our native prairie. It is widely considered one of the most endangered ecosystems in Canada. Less than 20% of our native prairie remains in Saskatchewan. The rest has been turned into agricultural fields, cities and roads. Some types of native grassland, such as northern fescue, are even more diminished, to less than 10% of their original.

2. Because they support endangered species. 
Many of the federally-listed Species at Risk in Saskatchewan are found in our native grasslands. This is a direct result of the habitat loss. In Southern Saskatchewan, many of the native birds and animals require native prairie to survive - it is their only home. Over 30 Species at Risk are known to live on the Community Pastures.

3. Because they are diverse. 
While a quarter section of agricultural land may contain a few agricultural crop species, a quarter section of native prairie will support over a hundred species of grasses and wildflowers and hundreds of animal species including birds, insects and myriad bacteria and fungi. Sadly our croplands are biological deserts bereft of almost all of their original native diversity.

4. Because they protect soil and water. 
Grasslands help mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration by the grasses and other plants. They prevent soil erosion. They also contribute to water security as healthy plants and their root systems filter and purify our water.

5. Because they sequester carbon.
Most of the carbon held in the ecosphere is found in soils. Unbroken native prairie sequesters a vast deposit of soil carbon - one of Canada’s largest carbon sinks. Most of this carbon is lost when prairie is broken. This happens because soil bacteria quickly convert the stores of soil carbon into CO2, a greenhouse gas that directly contributes to global warming. Acre for acre, prairie soils hold more carbon than boreal forest soils.

6. Because they support ranching economy and culture.
Grasslands are important to cattle ranchers and their communities as they provide land for grazing - for both domestic and wild species of animals. As publicly-owned lands, they can support smaller producers, and can demonstrate how economic, cultural and environmental objectives can be integrated.

7. Because they contain the cultural heritage of the prairie.
Many archaeological sites are still to be found on these relatively undisturbed prairie grasslands. These sites have significant cultural and heritage values for all Saskatchewan people: indigenous, settler and other newcomers.

8. Because people need native prairie places they can visit.
Saskatchewan people use these publicly-owned lands for recreational and cultural purposes. They are important to the nearby rural communities and are very important elements of Indigenous traditional culture.

9. Because all natural land has value that goes beyond economics.
Public lands are more than a commodity. While they have financial value for agriculture, they also provide important environmental, heritage, cultural, indigenous and recreational values.

10. Because we have a responsibility to the future.
These grasslands - as threatened as the Amazon rainforest - are our children’s heritage and our responsibility. Our children’s prairie heritage is under threat: the beauty of a fresh prairie morning; birds singing; wildflowers dancing in the breeze. We must ensure that our children inherit a province rich in the possibilities of our grasslands.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Hopeful news: Ottawa is listening!

Progress Community Pasture, which contains one of the last wetlands where
Whooping Cranes nested on the prairie
Tremendous good news today coming out of Ottawa. For the first time in four years, the fate of the PFRA pastures is an issue receiving serious attention in Parliament.

The Federal Standing Committee on Finance, chaired by the Hon. Wayne Easter, has released its recommendations ahead of the budget, which will be announced on March 22nd. The report, available online, contains the following recommendation:
"Recommendation 49 The federal government consider re-establishing the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Program. In this regard, the government should begin by reinstating funding for two initiatives: the publicly owned Community Pasture Program; and the Prairie Shelterbelt Program and Indian Head Tree Nursery." 
There is no indication if that recommendation will bear fruit so we will have to watch the budget next Tuesday to find out. Either way, this is an affirmation of the efforts made by private people and NGOs across Canada in recent months. Groups like Public Pastures--Public Interest, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, the National Farmers' Union, Nature Canada, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Nature Saskatchewan, the Alberta Wilderness Association and so many others have been raising the issue at every opportunity.

Since mid-February, hundreds of people have sent letters to the Federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, to the Minister of Climate Change and Environment, and to the Prime Minister himself. If you were one of them, thank you for helping. Today's news is proof that your letter struck a chord.

Not quite a moment to celebrate, but perhaps time to say a prayer to the better angels of democracy and good government. Our public grasslands, the rare creatures who depend upon them, and the men and women who manage the grazing, deserve Canada's support. To do otherwise would be to leave some of the nation's most endangered landscapes and ecosystems without any programming to protect them from the vagaries of the marketplace and conserve their rich legacy for generations to come.

Western Meadowlark, by Hamilton Greenwood

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