ANR policy could balance wildlife, renewable energy
By Gaen Murphree
The bobolinks that nested in Vermont hayfields and grasslands this past summer are already winging their way toward winter homes in Argentina and Brazil. Environmentalists warn that when the birds return next spring some of their nesting habitat may have been swallowed up by the spread of solar arrays.
“Bobolinks look at solar panels like they would trees. They don’t want to be near trees, and they don’t want to be near solar panels,” said state wildlife biologist John Gobeille, noting that the small grassland birds won’t nest any closer than 300 feet from trees.
State officials charged with protecting the environment are trying to develop an official policy regarding habitat loss and solar and wind development. Officials at the Agency of Natural Resources hope to have such a policy ready by the end of the year. The need for such a policy highlights the tension between environmentalists’ desire to slow global warming by establishing more renewable energy sources and the desire to protect sometimes endangered species by protecting their habitat from the development.
A prime example is off Field Days Road in New Haven, where a Waitsfield company called Green Peak Solar has applied to build a 2.2-megawatt solar farm that it is calling “Next Generation,” on 27 acres of prime bobolink nesting land.
Last June, Gobeille walked the proposed Next Generation site with Nathaniel Vandal, a principal of Green Peak Solar. “It was ideal [for bobolinks]. It was just beautiful,” said Gobeille, an environmental review expert with the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Lands and Habitat Program. “It was during the critical breeding season in the month of June. And it was full of bobolinks.”
Bobolinks require a minimum of around 20 acres of open grass, he said.
The loss of these 27 acres, while seemingly small in and of itself, is part of what state wildlife experts see as one of Vermont’s greatest habitat challenges, the piecemeal fragmentation of habitat as one small piece here or there gets pulled out of habitat and into human development.
“These habitat losses are insidious over time,” Gobeille said. “They keep occurring. And a lot of people will think, ‘Well, it’s just this 20 acres here,’ but it’s not. It’s the 20 acres the next road over, the next town over. It all sort of adds up, so we have to be very vigilant about habitat loss. We need to protect it wherever we find it.”
Bobolinks are important because they are among 39 bird species identified by the state as “species of greatest conservation need.” (An additional 12 species are designated threatened or endangered). Bobolinks are also considered an indicator species, whose overall health and habitat needs helps us understand other grasslands birds on Vermont’s official threatened and endangered list, like the upland sandpiper and the grasshopper sparrow.
Given bobolinks’ status as a “species of greatest conservation need,” Gobeille suggested possible mitigation strategies for the Next Generation array, including moving the arrays toward the side rather than the middle of the site to preserve more habitat or keeping the array site as already planned and mitigating the loss of habitat by paying for bobolink conservation measures elsewhere. These so-called offsite mitigation options can include paying into the UVM Bobolink Project to help farmers defray the cost of losing an early mowing or helping to purchase lands or land easements elsewhere.
Vandal said that Green Peak Solar worked with the ANR once it found out that the Field Days site was home to bobolinks. It worked out a plan with agency officials and both sides signed a memorandum of understanding.
“We reached an agreement about things that the project would do to try to mitigate impacts to bobolinks and what it primarily came down to was leaving areas outside of the fence and not mowing them more than once per year,” Vandal said.
So seven acres around the 20-acre fenced array will be mowed only after Aug. 1 and only once a year.
If this were a hay field, ANR’s stipulations would be a win for the bobolinks, as August mowing would allow chicks to hatch and fledge safely. But given the bobolink’s intensely documented requirements to be in open fields, away from trees, including “solar,” those are now 27 acres bobolinks are unlikely to use, mowed or unmowed, according to the experts.
“In the grand scheme of things that’s a bad deal for bobolinks,” said Allan Strong, an associate professor UVM’s Natural Resources and Wildlife and Fisheries Biology programs and the Vermont-side leader of the New England-wide Bobolink Project.
Decline of a Vermont bird
Over the past 50 years, bobolinks have declined in Vermont by 75 percent as the open grasslands they need to nest have given way to development and as farming practices have led to earlier haying. Bobolinks nest in open grasslands from about mid-May to mid-July, and baby birds can get munched up by hay mowers at what experts describe as a “100 percent mortality rate.” To make matters more complicated, around 90 percent of bobolink habitat in Vermont is on private land, as most public lands are forest, not open grassland.
Strong and the Bobolink Project have been working with farmers to encourage later mowing practices, so that more baby birds make it through the haying season. But habitat loss is a different issue.
In a sort of wildlife-management Catch-22, the state faces both escalating challenges from climate change and, according to the Wildlife Action Plan, loss of habitat to renewable energy development that leaves many species less able to withstand the challenges that climate change is bringing.
Fully 19 percent of Vermont’s 268 bird species are identified in the revised 2015 draft Wildlife Action Plan as “species of greatest conservation need.” The plan also identifies “conversion of forest and grassland habitat to utility-scale wind and solar energy generation” as “perhaps the single most significant emerging issue impacting birds in Vermont during the last 10 years.”
Both Strong and Gobeille describe ANR’s current approach to renewable energy and species habitat as “piecemeal.”
According to Gobeille, ANR is working on a policy about habitat mitigation and renewables development that will have the official backing of the entire agency. He anticipates that an official policy might be worked out and on the record by the end of the year. In the absence of such an official policy, Fish and Wildlife field scientists can visit proposed sites and can recommend mitigation strategies, but these recommendations will likely be overlooked.
“It’s tough,” said Strong on the challenges of weighing the various human and environmental factors in siting solar and other renewables.
“For nearly all species of wildlife, large, unfragmented patches of habitat will be more likely to protect populations than small isolated parcels,” he continued. “A strong mitigation policy around the loss of grassland habitat would improve habitat quality for grassland birds, as well as allow better planning in terms of where we want to prioritize their conservation.”
Strong’s impression is that the considerable evidence in favor of pushing effective mitigation strategies is shared amongst Fish and Wildlife field scientists but needs upper-level agency backing.
Said Strong, “I just don’t know at this point if they’ve gotten enough internal support to say this is official policy. That’s sort of the way that I read it. It’s a policy that they’re still trying to push through. But I get the impression that they’re still doing this on a piecemeal basis.”
“Protecting wildlife is not something you can just put a monetary value on,” said Gobeille, “I can’t tell you that every deer or every bobolink is worth this much money. But wildlife is part of our natural heritage in Vermont. We’re not just sidewalks and cars and highways. We have a natural environment here, a beautiful state, and these are all part of our native wildlife. And the benefit to people—it could be something as very direct as putting deer meat on your table for your family every fall or it could just be the peace and solace of a hike in Vermont and seeing wildlife.”
Gaen Murphree is a reporter for the Addison Independent, a sister paper to the Mountain Times.