First study to document the effects of large-scale solar power installations on a large carnivore – sciencedaily
Florida, the “Sunshine State,” is rapidly increasing the installation of large-scale solar power installations (USSEs) to combat carbon emissions and climate change. However, the expansion of renewables can come with environmental tradeoffs. Reducing the energy industry’s carbon footprint hampers the paw print of a large carnivore.
Once found throughout the southeastern United States, the only breeding population of the endangered Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) is restricted to just over 5 percent of its historic range in southern Florida. Florida panthers need hallways to disperse, which most often occurs when they leave their maternal range to go on their own. Plus, they have very large home ranges – males require around 200 square miles, and their survival depends on their ability to move from protected area to protected area through wildlife corridors.
Researchers at Florida Atlantic University conducted the first study documenting the effect of USSE facilities on habitat quality and large-scale habitat connectivity suitable for any large carnivore. The study encompassed Peninsular Florida, excluding the Panhandle region, and focused on 45 installed or planned USSE facilities representing approximately 27,688 acres – the average size of a USSE plant was approximately 615 acres. .
Researchers compared the suitability and connectivity of Florida panther habitat before and after the USSE facility was installed on the Florida Peninsula using a random forest to predict the likelihood of presence in cells. 1 square kilometer and circuit theory to predict the probability of movement between areas of suitable habitat. They also used panther radio telemetry data collected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) from February 1981 to June 2020 to validate the planned corridors.
The results of the study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, showed that most often solar installations were installed on meadows and pastures (45.7% of the total area replaced by solar installations) and agricultural land (34.9%). Forest was the third most affected land cover category (13.2 percent). The results suggest a significant bias in the location of USSE facilities in rural and undeveloped lands, which may provide sufficient connectivity for Florida panthers to roam, live, and breed.
The most significant impacts occurred where the facilities were located in a planned major corridor, where the current density was considerably higher than its surroundings, and where no other major corridor exists. Researchers found nine facilities located in major corridors connecting current breeding habitat and other core areas that may support Florida panther populations. They found 26 additional facilities located in rural areas between central areas with relatively lower current densities compared to major corridors, but which could potentially promote dispersion. Of the other facilities in this study, four were in or directly adjacent to core areas, and only six facilities had no expected potential impact on core areas or connectivity.
“Our study suggests that in the drive to shift our energy production to carbon neutral sources, while maintaining maximum profitability, wildlife outside of human-dominated landscapes with large expanses and dispersal potentials may be pushed into less favorable habitat or completely cut off from available habitat by degradation of corridors, ”said Olena V. Leskova, MS, senior author, Ph.D. student in the geosciences department of the FAU at Charles E. Schmidt College of Science and geographer / geospatial scientist in the South Florida Water Management District.
Most of the USSE facilities in this study are surrounded by 6 foot high chain link fences, topped with barbed wire, which is believed to cause scatter redirection. Some installations use wildlife friendly 6ft split rail fencing with wide mesh or short intervals of 4ft split rail fencing with wide mesh and some have double fencing. The ecological costs of fences to wildlife include the disruption of their migration routes, the division of their habitats, the restriction of their range and evolutionary potential, and, directly or indirectly, injury or death.
“Formally protecting and enhancing the remaining corridors between core areas on a landscape scale will potentially enhance or mitigate impacts already evident after the installation of some facilities, and could prevent foreseeable impacts with additional facilities planned,” Scott said. H. Markwith, Ph.D., co-author and professor in the Department of Geosciences at FAU. “Restoring dispersal corridors and gene flow throughout Peninsular Florida is essential for the Florida panther, its prey, and the ancillary species that benefit from a connected Florida ecosystem. This, in turn, will benefit biodiversity and the resilience of species at the landscape scale. “
Solar capacity in Florida is expected to increase from 1,743 megawatts to 12,537 megawatts over 10 years, with major utilities forecasting substantial expansions. The researchers note that USSE installations installed in clusters can create greater disruption in connectivity than individual installations, especially when installed as a nearly continuous barrier perpendicular to the corridor. This practice of consolidating facilities is attractive to energy companies as it decreases the amount of supporting infrastructure such as roads and transmission lines, and consolidates maintenance activities.
“We believe that regulatory and licensing agencies, as well as the utilities themselves, should start to consider landscape connectivity when planning and licensing the location of power plants. USSE, ”Leskova said.
Impacts are expected on other threatened and protected wildlife species in Florida, including those with high spatial requirements and / or specific habitat requirements, such as gopher turtles, eastern indigo snakes. , Florida scrub jays, Florida burrowing owls, and Florida black bears.
“Research involving other impacted species will also fill gaps in environmental protection policy regarding the local and regional implications of utility-scale solar power installations,” said Markwith .
The co-author of the study is Robert Frakes, Ph.D., an ecologist specializing in panther habitat modeling and conservation.