Wednesday, July 22, 2015

77 wind turbines at Chaplin Lake will place birds at risk

The Endangered Piping Plover will be even more endangered if
the Chaplin wind farm goes ahead (],
via Wikimedia Commons

It is nearly impossible to keep abreast of the threats to our prairie wildlife that arise each week. I hear or read about some fresh mayhem to be spread upon the land and then I hear of another imminent disaster and the first one slips my mind.

Some time ago I read in the paper that the province had approved a large wind farm project to be constructed at Chaplin Lake. I read the article over a couple of times, thinking at first there must be another Chaplin Lake. Surely Environment Canada and Saskatchewan's Environment ministry would not approve a wind farm near the Chaplin Lake, the one that is an internationally recognized migration stopover for a million or more birds each spring and fall, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve, the Birdlife International Important Bird Area, the place where one-third of North America's Sanderlings feed each year on their way north, where several species at risk nest, including nearly 4% of the planet's Piping Plovers.

Now, like most people, I like the idea of wind energy. There are some big environmental benefits to be had with wind, but they can easily be negated if the siting is wrong.

as many as 40,000 to 50,000 Sanderlings
have been seen at one time at Chaplin

Still not quite believing our environmental agencies are that far gone, however, I looked for more details online.

I found a "Terms of Reference for Environmental Impact Statement" drafted by Stantec Engineering for Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment, and paid for by the private company building the wind project.

The plan, indeed, is to erect 77 massive wind turbines just north of the Chaplin Lake reserve and start operating in 2016. Here is a map showing the area affected by the turbines.

I also found a slide show put together by Stantec for an open house in 2014, in which they reassure everyone that there is a very low risk to birds.

I not convinced. Why? First, because people who have worked for these consulting companies have told me how frustrated they are knowing that the work they do is not sufficient to assess the risk to the habitat and species concerned. They put in the hours and do their best, but in the end they know that their research is just not up to the job.

Second, independent grassland biologists have told me in confidence that no scientist would take the research of companies like Stantec seriously; that their "science," often conducted by people with undergrad degrees in biology, is bogus; and that they are sent out to do a minimal amount of field work in studies that are not properly designed--all to jump through the hoops and satisfy the Environmental Impact Assessment requirements, which in this province have proven again and again to do very little to protect our environment.

To properly ascertain the threat to birds that nest in the native grassland where the turbines will go and to the waterbirds that use the wetlands at Chaplin, you would need several skilled field technicians on the ground for at least a couple of years, spring, summer and fall. What's more, their data gathering methodology would have to be designed by a qualified scientist to ensure that it has some integrity and rigour. If Stantec's "research" at Chaplin were ever submitted to a refereed journal on avian ecology my guess is that it would be promptly filed under "G" (garbage or greenwashing, take your pick).

Seventy-seven turbines sited next to a globally significant shorebird reserve, but not to worry. The presentation by Stantec states that "WTGs [wind turbine generators] present low collision risks to shorebirds."

Gee, they better have that right because hundreds of thousands of shorebirds head directly north of Chaplin every spring. Are they all going to dodge the gauntlet of whirring blades?

Let's see what another study says on shorebird mortality--a study that is not paid for by a wind farm company. A Montana study sponsored by The Nature Conservancy (totally independent from the Nature Conservancy of Canada) looked into how best to site wind farms in that state without hurting prairie ecology. (Hmm--what a great idea.) Here is what they said about shorebirds and wind turbines:

"Stewart et al. (2007) reviewed numerous avian and wind studies and noted that birds in the order Charadriiformes (shorebirds) were among those most impacted by wind energy globally (second only to waterfowl)."

Go the executive summary of that paper by Stewart et al and you find this statement which mentions the high risk to shorebirds and also calls into question the often slap-dab approach used to assess risk for birds:

"Windfarms may have significant biological impacts, especially over longer time scales, but the evidence-base is poor, with many studies being methodologically weak, and more long-term impact assessments are required. There is clear evidence that Anseriformes (wildfowl) and Charadriiformes (shorebirds) experience declines in abundance, suggesting that a precautionary approach should be adopted to windfarm development near aggregations of these taxa. . . ."  

Now, this is the point at which proponents will argue that, while wind farms may kill some birds, high rises and roads kill many more. This is dubious logic at best, in part because we have far more buildings and roads than we have wind turbines on the landscape. Also, we generally try to keep glass high rises and roads out of internationally important bird migration and breeding habitat.

Wind power is a great thing--we need wind farms, but why site them on native prairie in a place through which great multitudes of birds move each year? In a single day there can be as many as 73,000 shorebirds pass through Chaplin.

We have all kinds of windy landscapes in this province where there is little habitat to attract birds--we call it cropland. A lot of our cultivated landscape is an ecological desert--birds stay away in the thousands and go to places like Chaplin. There is no good reason to site a wind farm in native grassland next to a wetland of international significance. Period.

The conclusion of the Montana study is instructive here:
"We estimate that in total about 17 million acres of available good-to-superb wind energy potential exists within Montana. Of that total, we have identified roughly 7.7 million acres with high risk [for wildlife]. We strongly suggest that these areas be avoided as locations for wind energy development, rather than considering mitigation approaches, as the lands identified are often critical habitat for multiple species. Through our analysis we have identified about 9.2 million acres that most likely present a lower risk of impact to resident and breeding species. This total includes the roughly 4.4 million acres of cropland we noted earlier in the report." 

Anyone can see that this just makes sense.

Here are some more photos of the shorebirds that come to Chaplin each year and will be placed at risk by the wind farm if it goes ahead:


  1. This is crazy Trevor! If you look at the data from the State of Canada's Birds ( shorebirds are showing alarming population declines already! The last thing they need is another obstacle set up on an vital staging ground. What can we do? Can we rally people around the issue like was done for the golf course idea at White Butte?

  2. Thanks Jared--let me know if you have any ideas.

  3. Hi Trevor - their disclaimer kinds says it all - they won't stand behind their work if it causes any problems. Here's the wording from the front of their report:

    This document entitled Proposed Chaplin Wind-Energy Project was prepared by Stantec Consulting Ltd. for the account of Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment. The material in it reflects Stantec’s best judgment in light of the information available to it at the time of preparation. Any use which a third party makes of this report, or any reliance on or decisions made based on it, are the responsibilities of such third parties. Stantec Consulting Ltd. accepts no responsibility for damages, if any, suffered by any third party as a result of decision
    s made or actions based on this report.

  4. This decision makes me sad and angry. You are so right that this is a large province - I'm wondering who the land owner is? Do we know at what stage the project is at? I've never been an activist but this just doesn't make sense. What can I do as an individual? Is the approach that needs to be taken similar to communities working with logging companies - dialogue and compromise and community involvement. How does the community of Herbert and Chaplin feel about this project. We buy gas and food in these communities when we venture out to observe the migration. Wendy Woodard

  5. All good questions, Wendy. Some may be answered in the media in the next few days. The proponent says that they did all the community consulting but when I stopped in at the Chaplin Nature Centre this week neither one of the two women on staff had heard of the project.

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  7. Hi Trevor.Good for you for raising public awareness on this issue. I first heard of this proposal during an NCC bio-blitz at Chaplin / Reed Lake two summers ago I think it was. I wonder what NCC has to say about this, they have several properties around Reed Lake and their staff are pretty active in the Chaplin area. One NCC staff member I spoke to that day was quite angry and frustrated about this proposal.

  8. You are most welcome. Unfortunately, NCC is not an advocacy group and cannot speak out publicly on developments like this that threaten habitat.

  9. Is there a petition we can sign? How can we help?

  10. Absolutely shocking to see Peter Prebble's (SK Environmental Society's Director of Environmental Policy) approval of this nightmare . . . with no reservations whatsoever!!

    Morse wind farm on stream soon.
    [ ]

    1. Not the case at all, actually. In fact Peter wrote the best critique of the Chaplin project and submitted it to Environmental Assessment a couple weeks ago. See

  11. Trevor, did you note this article in the Leader Post? It underlines the importance of placing those turbines well away from that globally important habitat.

  12. There's a chance you qualify for a new solar energy rebate program.
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