Endangered hawk nest stirs up debate over proposed urban solar farm – Yahoo News Canada

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An active ferruginous hawk nest was discovered on the site of the proposed Saamis Solar Park power plant. The developer has since adjusted its plans, in response. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – image credit)

A proposal to build and operate a 1,600-acre solar farm within Medicine Hat’s urban limits is up for debate this week at an Alberta Utilities Commission hearing.

Among the concerns raised by opponents of the project are its potential impacts on threatened raptors and migrating pronghorns.

The Saamis Solar Park would produce up to 325 megawatts of power on lands zoned for residential and industrial use, according to the applicant, Irish developer DP Energy.

The project was first proposed in 2016 but has faced delays in the approval process because of Alberta’s seven-month moratorium on renewable energy project approvals — and because of nesting birds of prey.

The application was first scheduled to go to a hearing in July 2023 but was delayed after a nesting pair of ferruginous hawks — an endangered species under Alberta’s Wildlife Act — were discovered on the project site.

At the hearing on Tuesday, Stantec biologist David Plumpton said at least one hawk was still active in the area.

“A biologist from Stantec visited the project site last week … She saw one ferruginous hawk in a tree adjacent to [the nesting site],” he said.

DP Energy has updated its plan, saying it won’t erect any solar panels or related infrastructure within 200 meters of the nesting site.

Ferruginous hawk seen flying in a blue skyFerruginous hawk seen flying in a blue sky

Ferruginous hawk seen flying in a blue sky

Ferruginous hawks have been listed as endangered since 2006 under Alberta’s Wildlife Act. (Gordon Court/Alberta Government)

The Alberta government’s wildlife directive for Alberta solar energy projects says a setback of 1,000 metres is required for sensitive species, including ferruginous hawks.

But an assessment prepared on behalf of DP Energy said the wildlife directive does not apply because the proposed project is within urban lands.

It also said a 200-metre setback was selected because the area has already been “disturbed by oil and gas infrastructure, roads, industrial facilities, and residential developments.”

“We concluded in the assessment that significant effects [on grassland birds] were not likely from the project,” said Nick De Carlo, a vegetation ecologist with Stantec, at the hearing on Tuesday.

Stantec conducted fieldwork for the project on behalf of the developer.

But a report prepared by another consulting firm on behalf of a group called the Medicine Hat Concerned Citizens said the current plan won’t leave enough space for the birds to hunt.

Dispute over impacts on pronghorns

The assessment prepared on behalf of the Medicine Hat Concerned Citizens also says the project could impact pronghorns partly because a chain link fence around most of the project area will be “impermeable” to the migrating ungulates.

The plant cover in the project area has historically been used by the species, and could still be important during severe winters, the report said.

But a document prepared on behalf of DP Energy argued that the typical wintering habitat for pronghorns is outside the project area, the land “does not contain high-quality attributes for a pronghorn movement corridor,” and unfenced areas will allow for wildlife movement.

Two pronghorns were observed in the project area last year and two more were observed within a kilometre of its borders.

A pronghorn in Wyoming, USA.A pronghorn in Wyoming, USA.

A pronghorn in Wyoming, USA.

Environmental consulting firms hired by DP Energy and opponents of the project disagree over whether the project site is significant to Alberta’s pronghorn population. (Snapshot USA)

DP Energy, the Medicine Hat Concerned Citizen Group and their representatives are also split over the significance of native vegetation within the project site.

In a letter, Alberta Environment and Protected Areas said a provincial impact assessment of the project site was not required because it falls within urban limits, and urban solar projects typically have a “limited impact to wildlife.”

A group called Medicine Hat Land Developers is also asking the AUC to deny the application, arguing the project will impact future residential development and property values.

DP Energy said there are no guarantees in land development and the solar project has already passed through the city’s development permit process.

The hearing is scheduled to continue Thursday.

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