The Port Ryerse Wind Farm project has been delayed for another five months while the Ministry of Natural Resources continues to investigate the sighting of a rare barn owl.
A provincial tribunal reviewing the project has adjourned until March 31, 2015, to give the MNR more time to investigate if the endangered birds have been nesting locally.
For now, wind farm developer Boralex cannot do any construction work that might harm barn owl habitat.
The MNR has told Boralex that it will need a special permit to proceed with construction.
The permit would allow Boralex to disturb the owls’ nesting and hunting areas as long as the company is able to make things better for the owls overall.
Boralex proposes to build four industrial wind turbines on farmland east of Port Ryerse.
The Ministry of Environment approved the project in August.
Two residents filed appeals with the Environmental Review Tribunal, which has power to stop projects if they pose harm to people or wildlife.
The tribunal held one day of hearings in Simcoe on Oct. 6 then adjourned for a month after the MNR confirmed that at least one rare barn owl had been seen in the Port Ryerse area in July.
Since then the MNR has ordered the tribunal to delay hearings for another five months.
Barn owls are protected by Ontario’s Endangered Species Act.
The Port Ryerse sighting was the first anywhere in the province in about five years.
The MNR has started investigating to determine if the barn owl simply stopped in Port Ryerse on its way to a home elsewhere.
If that’s the case, the owl’s visit will not affect plans for the wind farm.
But if the owl had a mate and they return to nest again this spring, their presence may delay the wind farm’s construction for years.
Barn owls are believed to spend their winters in southern Ohio or New York State.
They have not been seen locally for close to three months.
At the moment, the wind farm project has two hurdles to clear.
The new five-month delay on hearings means the environmental review tribunal likely won’t rule on the two residents’ appeals until autumn 2015.
Meanwhile, to get an “overall benefit permit” to allow construction, Boralex must show the MNR that the wind farm will benefit barn owls by improving circumstances for them, for example, by increasing the number of owls or by increasing nesting or hunting areas.
Boralex’s application would be the first in Ontario for a permit to benefit barn owls.
Although it’s possible that the MNR might grant the permit before the environmental review tribunal meets on March 31, a ministry lawyer acknowledged in an e-mail to tribunal participants that “there are a number of unknowns right now that will take some work and some time to bring to conclusion – including some identification work through the Royal Ontario Museum.”
The permit would require Boralex to do more than minimize the wind farm’s effects on barn owls.
The company would have to show that the wind farm would make things better for these birds.
Boralex is working diligently with the MNR to ensure construction of the Port Ryerse Wind Power Project complies with the Endangered Species Act and all other provincial and federal legislation, Annie Callan, manager of project development, wrote in an e-mail to The Maple Leaf.
“It is of critical importance to Boralex that all of our projects are constructed and operated with a conscientious respect for the environment,” Ms. Callan wrote.
In conjunction with applying for an overall benefit permit, the MNR has suggested Boralex submit an Avoidance Alternatives Form, which may identify alternatives sufficient to avoid adverse effects on barn owls.
Examples of avoidance options include relocating the project or adjusting timelines to avoid when endangered species are present or sensitive to disturbance.
If the MNR deems one or more alternatives are sufficient to avoid harming barn owls and their habitats, Boralex may be allowed to proceed with construction without obtaining an overall benefit permit.
“Boralex is committed to the development of the Port Ryerse Wind Power Project and contributing to the increase of electricity produced by renewable energy,” Ms. Callan’s e-mail concluded.
Boralex should not be allowed to go ahead with construction, said Suzanne Andrews, spokesperson for Port Ryerse residents opposed to the wind farm.
“Putting up wind turbines does not save barn owls. It kills them,” she said in an interview.
Construction would disrupt nesting. It would also disrupt roadside ditches where owls hunt mice and voles, Mrs. Andrews said.
Mrs. Andrews is certain that two owls were seen in Port Ryerse last summer.
She encourages wind farm opponents to write to the federal minister of environment to get involved in the Port Ryerse wind farm discussion because barn owls are protected federally as well as provincially.
A live barn owl and bald eagle will be on view at a public meeting at Port Ryerse Memorial Church on Thursday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m.
James Cowan, of the Canadian Raptor Conservancy, and Bernie Solymar, of EarthTramper Consulting Inc., will talk about how to identify species at risk and how to protect them.
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