It strikes them when they hibernate. A white fungus appears around their mouth, noses, ears and wings. It takes so much energy for the bat’s immune system to combat the infection, they use up their available fat stores. Some die in their roost; others fly hungry into the winter sky empty of insects upon which they need to feed and rebuild their energy. Since 2007, white-nose syndrome has wiped out as much as 90 per cent of local bat populations. Perhaps more. In some places, all the bats are gone.
Large die-offs of bats seem unprecedented. Worse, recovery will be slow. These animals live six to seven years and bear just a single pup each year. It will take a long time for bat populations to recover— if they survive at all.
The impact on farming is only now beginning to be assessed. But according to the US Geological Survey, a recent economic analysis indicated that insect suppression services provided by bats to US agriculture are valued at between 4 and 50 billion dollars per year. It is likely more chemical solutions will be required to take the place of the bats.
I had never heard of white-nose syndrome or of the rapid devastation it has wreaked upon bat populations until I read the decision of the Environmental Review Tribunal considering the appeal of the White Pines industrial wind project.
Perhaps there is some good to have come from this sorry mess. Perhaps the plight of this and other endangered species will be aired more widely as a result.
In fairness, the issue of white-nose syndrome in bats was raised in the Ostrander Point appeal in 2013, but the scale of the decimation appears not to have been fully understood then. Further, that Tribunal felt handcuffed by the lack of science to help them understand the scale of bat deaths due to collision with wind turbines that would constitute serious and irreversible harm.
The White Pines Tribunal was armed with better science. It is clearer now, too, the desperate plight of bats and, in particular, the little brown bat. According to Ontario’s list of species at risk, there may be as few as five per cent of the historic population remaining.
According to Scientific American, more bats are killed by wind turbines than birds—as many as 880,000 in 2012. And according to the Wind Energy Bird & Bat Monitoring Database, little brown bats represented 23.5 per cent of total fatalities.
The good news is that there are still some little brown bats in South Marysburgh—though the numbers are likely low.
To be clear, the Tribunal drew a clear distinction between the disease and collisions with industrial wind turbines. Wind turbines haven’t caused bat die-offs—white-nose syndrome has done this. It concluded, however, that the little brown bat is so acutely vulnerable that erecting 50-storey tall batkilling machines with the sweep of a football field is reckless and needlessly destructive.
The Tribunal found that even a small increase in the mortality of the little brown bat due to wind turbines constitutes serious and irreversible harm.
The Tribunal had strong words for the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, charged with protecting and safeguarding birds, animals and habitat in this province. It described the lack of survey data related to the little brown bat in the Renewable Energy Approval (REA) permit as a “failure.”
The Tribunal further criticized the REA process for establishing an “arbitrary” and “unscientific” threshold of bat deaths before compelling the developer to shut off the turbines. Under REA rules, the developer is only required to act if more than 10 bats die per turbine per year. Given that these bats are small and their carcasses hard to find, the Tribunal concluded that many, many bats would die before the developer was compelled to respond.
“If this were the only search requirement,” wrote the Tribunal in its decision, “there could be significant mortality to the little brown bat from the project before mitigation measures are triggered.”
Neither was the Tribunal impressed with the mitigation measures proposed by the developer.
“The Tribunal…finds in the present case that the Approval Holder’s OMP [operational mitigation plan], while a significant improvement over the provisions in the REA, will not minimize little brown bat mortality.”
In simple language, the Tribunal concluded that the developer’s action plan was better than the province’s but still grossly inadequate.
Ontario’s quest for the wind and solar energy sector has been a failure by every measure. Few jobs, eye-watering electricity rates, gas plant fiascos and the debasement of local governments. Yet, we elected these folks. We understood their policies and plans. We chose them anyway. We did this to ourselves.
But the wild creatures that live or stop over in this province—in its lakes, rivers, forests and woodlots— weren’t party to this arrangement.
We established safeguards over many decades to protect our natural environment and ecosystems. Piece by piece, we established rules and practices to ensure human activity didn’t impair the viability of the species with whom we share this province—particularly those creatures most vulnerable.
That was all erased by the Green Energy Act in 2009. In one terrible and destructive bit of legislation, Ontario eliminated these safeguards to enable renewable energy projects to proceed faster to approval. It was political arrogance and impatience that neutered the agencies we rely upon to protect our endangered animals, birds, habitat and little brown bats.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry knows that white-nose syndrome has wiped out as much as 95 per cent of the little brown bat population in the province. They know it is perched on the edge of extinction in places it once thrived. So then the question is: Why is the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change issuing permits allowing wind developers to erect sky-sweeping turbines when it knows these machines will kill more little brown bats, a desperately threatened species?
Demand that Ontario scrap the Green Energy Act and restore the environmental safeguards we built to protect the natural world around us.
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