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Ont. eyes reprieve for ag work near endangered birds

AGCanada.com

April 19, 2011.

Ontario farmers whose hayland or pastureland is nesting ground for a "threatened" species of songbird may soon get a three-year exemption from regulations that would restrict field work.

The provincial government on Friday said it has proposed an exemption from Endangered Species Act requirements on haying or use of pasture lands where bobolinks live, usually between late May and mid-July each year.

The exemption, if passed, "will give farmers more certainty and allow them to continue their operations, while a longer-term approach is developed to protect bobolinks and their habitat," the province said. The proposed changes would "make it easier and faster for landowners and developers to do work in areas where endangered species live," the province said.

The province said it sees the proposal as "saving businesses time while continuing to protect species such as barn owls, spotted turtles and butternut trees."

"Bobolink conservation presents a unique challenge because of the bird's dependence on farmland habitats," Anne Bell, director of conservation and education with Toronto-based conservation charity Ontario Nature, said in the province's release.

Found throughout Ontario south of the boreal treeline, bobolinks often build their small nests on the ground in dense grasses and have moved into hayfields as native prairie is cleared for farming or development, the province said.

Haying during the birds' breeding period may inadvertently kill and disturb nesting adults and young birds and destroy eggs and nests, the province said. Young birds are in the nest and can't fly when farmers and ranchers are cutting hay in mid-July.

"In addition, the quality of bobolink nesting habitat has likely declined over time due to modern hay production practices such as earlier-maturing seed mixtures and shorter crop rotation cycles," the province said.

Bobolinks can be beneficial in hayfields since they eat "large numbers" of insects that could otherwise be harmful to the crop, the province said. Along the bobolinks' migration route and in their wintering areas in South America, however, they are considered grain crop pests.

"Incentives"

The "longer-term" approach to protect the bobolink will involve "dedicated and targeted funding for stewardship incentives," as well as "short-term applied research pilot projects" and "targeted outreach and extension services" to support landowners' conservation work, the province said.

The government added Friday that it will set up an advisory group to provide advice on "how to realize these goals."

Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Bette Jean Crews hailed the government's proposal in the same release and called Ontario's farmers "leaders in protecting the province's unique wildlife such as the bobolink."

The province's approach, she said, "demonstrates a commitment to making the Endangered Species Act work for Ontario farmers." Meanwhile, farmers who find a bobolink or nest on their land may already be eligible for stewardship programs to support protection and recovery of at-risk species and their habitats, the province said.

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