Senior Conservation Manager – Bird Conservation, Education & Networks
Amherst Island is known in the world of birders as the place where owls gather in great numbers and densities most winters. People are thrilled to see owls in the wild and a trip to Amherst Island, located on the extreme east end of Lake Ontario, is as good as it gets. In mid-winter with a bit of luck, one can observe many of Canada’s owl species including Snowy, Short-eared, Long-eared, Saw Whet, Great Gray, Barred and others. The island is sparsely populated with people – the main land use being cattle farming, growing hay and keeping pasture. These habitats in the summer are home to large numbers of Bobolinks and other open-country birds, such as Eastern Meadowlark and Upland Sandpiper. The island swarms with swallows in the mid to late summer.
Map of Amherst Island and surrounding area
When the Association for the Protection of Amherst Island (APAI) learned that Windlectric Inc. was approved for a permit to build 26 towering wind turbines on the island, there was profound despair. They quickly organized to officially appeal the decision to the Environmental Review Tribunal of Ontario. Kingston Field Naturalists also participated in the Appeal, seeking to overturn the Ministry of Environment Approval at the Ontario Environmental Tribunal Board level. The feisty Prince Edward County Field Naturalists were successful in appealing a similar project proposed on the Ostrander Point Crown Land Block on the south shore of Prince Edward County, as well as achieving a partial victory in an Appeal of the White Pines Wind Energy project on the south shore of Prince Edward County earlier this year.
Photo of a Bobolink by Ted Cheskey
On August 3rd, the Tribunal rendered its decision after hearing evidence and arguments made by both sides between December 2015 and June 2016. The decision to reject the Appeal is a major blow to the naturalist community and particularly, the APAI. The Tribunal panel rejected all elements of the Appeal, including human health arguments (that have never been successful) and the wildlife arguments that were premised on the assertion that the project would cause serious and irreversible harm to populations of Bobolink, raptors (owls in particular), bats, and Blanding’s Turtle. In these hearings, the onus is on the Appellant to convince the Tribunal Panel that serious and irreversible harm is unavoidable as the project is presented. Each side has its own expert witnesses and some of the same people who had presented at the Ostrander hearings presented at the Amherst Hearings as well. The Tribunal rejected the Appellant’s arguments one after the other, either because the Approval holder (Windlectric) presented more convincing evidence in the Panel’s view, or because the evidence of the Appellant’s witnesses did not meet the test of serious and irreversible harm.
Of interest in the decision were several comparisons with the White Pines Wind Project. On February 26, the Tribunal accepted many of the Alliance to Protect Prince Edward County (APPEC) arguments that the project, with its 27 industrial wind turbines along Lake Ontario, would cause serious and irreversible harm to Blanding’s Turtle and Little Brown Bat populations. In its decision on the Amherst Island project, the Tribunal Panel often contrasted the evidence and context for the White Pines project, where the test for serious and irreversible harm was met for bats and Blanding’s Turtle, with the evidence on Amherst, which was both weaker from the point of view of the Appellant, and more convincing and better prepared from the perspective of the Approval holder. APAI have a very short timeframe to consider its options, and whether it can mount an appeal of the decision.
The Amherst decision is a reminder that we are missing adequate government policy that both promotes renewables in the right places while recognizing and protecting our key biodiversity areas including Canada’s nearly 600 Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBAs) such as Amherst Island and the South Shore of Prince Edward County.
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