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Rapidly rising solar energy plants threaten endangered Florida panthers

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To address carbon emissions and climate change, Florida, the “Sunshine State,” is rapidly increasing the installations of utility-scale solar energy (USSE) plants.

Renewable energy expansion, on the other hand, may come at the expense of the environment. Reducing the carbon footprint of the energy industry is impeding the footprint of a huge carnivore.

The endangered Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) once roamed the southern United States, but now its only breeding population is confined to just over 5% of its ancient habitat in South Florida.

Florida panthers require corridors to disperse, which occurs most frequently when they leave their maternal range and venture out on their own.

Furthermore, they have very extensive home ranges – males require roughly 200 square miles – and their capacity to travel from protected area to protected area via wildlife corridors is critical to their survival.

The first study to document the impact of USSE facilities on habitat suitability and broad-scale connectivity of appropriate habitat for any large carnivore was undertaken by researchers from Florida Atlantic University.

The study covered Peninsular Florida, excluding the Panhandle, and concentrated on 45 USSE plants that totaled around 27,688 acres — the average size of a USSE plant is about 615 acres.

Using random forest to anticipate probability of existence in 1 square kilometer cells and circuit theory to estimate movement probability between areas of suitable habitat, the study compared Florida panther habitat suitability and connectivity before and after the installation of USSE facilities in Peninsular Florida.

To validate the anticipated corridors, they used panther radio-telemetry data provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) from February 1981 to June 2020. 

The study’s findings, which were published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, revealed that solar facilities were most commonly constructed on grasslands and pastures (45.7 percent of total area replaced by solar facilities), as well as agricultural fields (34.9 percent).

The third most damaged land cover type was forest (13.2 percent).

The findings point to a significant bias in the placement of USSE facilities in rural and undeveloped areas, which may provide sufficient connection for Florida panthers to wander, dwell, and reproduce.

The greatest impacts were in areas where facilities were positioned within a forecasted main corridor, where the present density was significantly greater than the surrounding area, and where no alternative major pathways exist.

During their study, researchers found nine facilities that were near major corridors connecting the current breeding habitat with other areas that could support populations of the Florida panther.

They discovered further 26 infrastructures in rural areas between core areas with lower current concentrations than the key corridors, but which could possibly support dispersal.

Only four of the remaining facilities in this analysis were located within or directly adjacent to core areas, and only six had no to very minor potential influence on core areas or connections.

“Our study suggests that in the drive to shift our energy production to carbon neutral sources, while maintaining maximum profitability, wildlife outside human dominated landscapes with large ranges and dispersal potentials may be pushed into less favorable habitat or cut off completely from available habitat by degradation of corridors,” says Olena V. Leskova, senior author.

The majority of the USSE facilities in this study are encircled by 6-foot-tall chain-link fences with barbed wire on top, which is thought to promote dispersal redirection. Some facilities feature double fences, while others have wildlife-friendly 6-foot split rail fences with broad mesh or brief intervals of 4-foot split rail fences with wide mesh. Fencing has ecological consequences for wildlife, such as disrupting migration paths, splitting habitats, limiting their range and evolutionary potential, and causing harm or death directly or indirectly.

“Formally protecting and enhancing the remaining corridors between core areas at the landscape-scale will potentially ameliorate, or mitigate, the impacts already evident after installation of some facilities, and may prevent foreseeable impacts with additional planned facilities,” adds Scott H. Markwith, co-author. “Restoring dispersal corridors and gene flow throughout Peninsular Florida is critical to the Florida panther, its prey, and ancillary species that benefit from a connected Florida ecosystem. This, in turn, will benefit biodiversity and species resiliency at the landscape-scale.”

Solar capacity in Florida is expected to increase from 1,743 to 12,537 megawatts over the next ten years, with major energy firms planning significant increases. According to the researchers, USSE facilities built in clusters may disturb connectivity more than single facilities, especially when installed as a practically continuous barrier parallel to the corridor. Energy firms like this technique of clustering facilities because it reduces the quantity of supporting infrastructure, such as roads and transmission lines, and consolidates maintenance activities.

“We believe that regulatory and permitting agencies, and the electrical companies themselves, should begin taking landscape connectivity into account when planning and permitting USSE facility site locations,” adds Leskova.

Other endangered and protected wildlife species in Florida are predicted to be impacted, including gopher tortoises, eastern indigo snakes, Florida scrub jays, Florida burrowing owls, and Florida black bears, which have huge spatial requirements and/or particular habitat requirements.

“Research involving additional impacted species will also fill gaps in environmental protection policy concerning both local and regional scale implications of utility-scale solar energy facilities,” says Markwith.

Source: Journal of Applied Ecology

Image Credit: Getty

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