A wind turbine project proposed for Chaplin is causing environmentalists to grapple with the balance between renewable energy and potential harm to birds.
The Ontario-based Algonquin Power Co. is in the process of applying to the Saskatchewan government for a 75-turbine project a few kilometres north of Chaplin Lake.
The lake, 85 kilometres west of Moose Jaw, attracts tens of thousands of birds every year, especially as a stopover for those migrating north for breeding.
When environmentalist Trevor Herriot caught wind of the project, he said he couldn't believe the location for the turbines.
"Why put them there? Why not go to a place where there is not an internationally significant, globally important nesting and migrating area for shorebirds?" Although Herriot is in favour of more wind turbines in Saskatchewan, he is concerned for the birds' safety. "Yes, we've got to deal with climate change and our carbon footprint, but we can't do it at the expense of wildlife," he said.
Nature groups consulted for the project are torn in both directions, too.
George Wang, a summer student at the Chaplin Nature Centre, said the organization was "conflicted" when it heard about the proposal.
"I thought it was good, because (of the) clean energy. That's always something we want to support," he said.
But the proximity of the turbines to the bird habitat is worrisome, he said. He wants more information on the project.
Jordan Ignatiuk, executive director of Nature Saskatchewan, also had that "initial concern of 'Why that area?' It seems to be pretty sensitive environmentally to be putting up a wind farm."
He noted, though, that scientific literature hasn't provided clear answers yet on turbines' effects on birds.
"The information that's coming out really seems to be somewhat anecdotal and all over the map right now," he said.
Algonquin is presenting more definitive answers.
"The closest proposed turbine to Chaplin Lake would be a minimum of 4.5 km away. We believe there is sufficient scientific literature related to wind turbines and birds to support a low risk determination," the company's director of project planning and permitting Sean Fairfield wrote in an email.
In its initial project proposal submitted to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment in 2013, the company included an environmental assessment hundreds of pages long. Based on literature reviews and area studies, Algonquin concluded that "incidences of collision mortalities are not expected to be large enough to significantly affect bird populations."
The company expects the birds to be unaffected by the noise as well. An indirect effect could be avoidance behaviour by some species. The company said in the report it intends to undertake an environmental protection plan and conduct a monitoring program once the turbines are up and running.
The Ministry of Environment cannot yet make a comment on the project's expected effect on bird populations, said the acting director of the environmental assessment branch Brady Pollock.
The government is currently reviewing an environmental-impact statement from Algonquin. (That's different from the initial proposal.)
After that review is complete, the government will solicit comments from the public on the project before coming to a decision.
Chris Somers, an associate professor of biology at the University of Regina, studies the equilibrium between human interest and ecosystems. He said, "there's a cost associated with generating any kind of energy, and we really just have to make sure we get the right balance, and I think that's what goes into this kind of decision."
He added, "I don't think it's quite so cut and dry as, 'Should the windmills be there or not?' It's the cost of having the windmills there in terms of bird mortality - 'Is it acceptable to us in exchange for that clean energy?' - which definitely makes life complicated."