This report is one that every birder should read. What is going on here in Alberta right now affects us all, in more ways than one.
The amount of habitat destruction, both current and proposed, is immense. Strip-mining for the oilsands is expected to remove terrestrial and aquatic habitat (habitat that reclamation will never fully replace) for as many as 3.6 million birds. And drilling for oilsands is expected to remove breeding habitat for as many as 14.5 million forest birds.
Most of the remnant habitat within the oilsands region will be rendered of poor quality or even useless to birds because of the many ways in which habitat fragmentation and disturbance (by oilsands infrastructure) impacts bird survival and reproduction.
Oilsands operations draw huge amounts of water from the Athabasca River and from aquifers. As a result, wetlands dry up. This practice also threatens the downstream Peace-Athabasca Delta, which is a Ramsar site, part of a World Heritage Site, and one of the most important waterfowl nesting and staging areas in North America.
Toxic tailings ponds are a by-product of the strip-mining. The largest “ponds” are more than 3 miles across. Because of the location and size of the tailings ponds, as many as 100,000 birds may land on them, become oiled, and die EVERY YEAR. Compare this figure to the estimated bird mortality from a single event like the Exxon Valdez spill (225,000), and you quickly grasp the magnitude of the problem.
Oilsands operations are releasing toxins into both the air and water. These toxins include heavy metals that bioaccumulate and affect bird survival and reproduction. They also include nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxides that acidify the landscape over vast areas and impact birds by degrading wetlands, depleting soil calcium, increasing heavy metal uptake, and reducing the invertebrate food supply. Large amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are also being released and are affecting bird survival and reproduction in the oilsands region.
In many cases, it is boreal-dependent bird species that are already in sharp decline that are being threatened by oilsands habitat destruction and pollution. Among these are Horned Grebe, Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Boreal Chickadee, Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Canada Warbler, Rusty Blackbird, and Evening Grosbeak – species that have declined by 50% or more.
The oilsands are Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. Not only does the extraction and upgrading create more pollution than conventional oil production does (up to 4.5 times as much), but the aforementioned habitat destruction releases carbon stored in terrestrial vegetation, forests, soils, peat, and lake sediments. Birds worldwide may be profoundly affected by climate change especially in the face of the kind of rampant greenhouse gas emission and habitat destruction we’re seeing in Alberta.
The runaway train that is Alberta oilsands development needs to be brought under control now. Canadian birders need to write their elected representatives and demand a moratorium on new projects and project expansions and a cleanup of existing projects. American birders can help by opposing new pipelines for oilsands oil to the U.S.
Thanks to Jason Rogers in Banff, AB for this report.