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Danger in the Nursery

Tar-sands strip mining imperils environment

Strip-mining for tar sands, a source of low-grade oil, is damaging forest and wetland habitats in Canada's boreal forest. A report, Danger in the Nursery, from the Boreal Songbird Initiative, Natural Resources Defense Council and Pembina Institute, warns that over the next 30 to 50 years up to 300,000 hectares of forest and wetland could be directly affected, while habitat fragmentation, pollution and hydrological changes would affect a much larger area.

The report says that almost all the world's biggest oil companies are involved in tar sands extraction in an area of north eastern Alberta which supports at least 292 species of breeding birds.

Among globally threatened species are Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus and Sprague's Pipit Anthus spragueii (both Vulnerable), and Olive-sided Flycatcher Contopus cooperi (Near Threatened). The only wild, migratory population of Whooping Crane Grus americana (Endangered) nests at Wood Buffalo National Park to the north, and migrates over the tar sands region, occasionally stopping over at boreal wetlands.Many of the most abundant songbirds and waterbirds of the Americas also breed in the "bird nursery" of the boreal forest, and are already suffering declines because of logging, and degradation of their migration staging sites. "Canada's boreal forest is an incredibly important area for many breeding neotropical migrant birds, and contains numerous Important Bird Areas", said John Cecil, national IBA program director for Audubon (BirdLife in the USA). "The report details impacts to at least five IBAs, among numerous other impacts".

Site preparation for strip mining requires draining lakes and wetlands, diverting streams and rivers, clear-cutting forests, and removing all vegetation. Hydraulic shovels and trucks are used to dig as deep as 100 meters into the earth. Despite commitments by the oil and mining companies, there is no evidence that lost ecosystems can be restored. The report's lead author, Dr Jeff Wells, is Senior Scientist for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. "Strip mining is projected to destroy up to 300,000 hectares of boreal forests and wetlands. But more than 80% of established tar sands reserves are too deep for recovery via strip-mining and must instead be extracted using in-situ drilling techniques that need a dense network of roads, pipelines, compressor stations and energy generation facilities, which will eventually destroy more habitat than strip mining. The ecological effects of these disturbances extend into adjacent forest, meaning that a majority of the remnant forest will be affected."

Wells says that boreal birds and their habitats in north-eastern Alberta and adjoining regions of Saskatchewan are already being negatively impacted by airborne and waterborne pollutants from tar sands operations.Extensive ‘tailings ponds’ filled with toxic mining waste present a high risk to migrating waterbirds, since they remain open when natural water bodies are frozen. In April last year, around 500 Mallard Anas platyrhynchos and other ducks were reported to have died after landing on a tailings pond near a tar sands operation in northern Alberta.

"It is time to put a moratorium on the tar sands", said Ted Cheskey, an ecologist with Nature Canada (BirdLife co-Partner in Canada). "It is also time to ask the Federal Government of Canada why it is not using the Migratory Bird Convention Act as an instrument to better protect boreal birds.”<’i>

"The report demonstrates a very large number of birds will inevitably be impacted by tar sands development”, commented Dr George Finney - President of Bird Studies Canada (BirdLife co-Partner in Canada). "It is incumbent on governments and developers to be rigorous in attempts to mitigate these impacts through restoration, remediation and investments in offsetting conservation actions”.

4th July 2014