Alberta’s Wildlife Death Toll on the Rise

By Aaron Gehrke

Woodland Caribou Source: www.public-domain-image.com

Woodland Caribou
Source: http://www.public-domain-image.com

Killing in the name of big oil, the tar sands operations happening in Canada will result in a catastrophic death toll, of wildlife, this year. Ever since their beginning, the tar sands oil drilling, processing, and distributing have been one of the most alarming environmental issues to face the world. The environmental effect of the drilling can be felt worldwide. Not only does the drilling harm those closest to it, but its greenhouse gas emissions, and effect on the waterways, extend across the globe and essentially affect everyone. This paper will give a brief history of the tar sands, and will then examine the negative effects the tar sands have on different species of wildlife. This includes the loss of habitat for several different species of animals dependent on the Boreal Forest, where drilling is occurring. Also included are the effects the pollutants, given off from the processing, have on wildlife. Through this effect on wildlife, we can show how humans are being harmed as well, through environmental injustice. If animals are being poisoned, then so are the humans eating those contaminated animals; notably, the indigenous communities living near the Boreal Forest.

The Tar Sands are areas of land that contain petroleum deposits. Although they are found around the globe, Canada has an excessive amount of these oil sands. Due to the demand for fossil fuel, the business of extracting this oil is booming. In order to extract the petroleum, and make it usable fuel, several processes must take place. These extraction methods have a very negative impact on the environment. Not only do they use three gallons of water for every gallon of oil produced, but they take it from nearby sources, such as rivers. Along with the water required to make this oil, it also required approximately two tons of land to be dug up in order to produce a single barrel of this fuel. The amount of greenhouse gas produced during these processes is three times the gas produced from normal oil. Factoring in the growing amount of sand drilling taking place, it is estimated that the tar sand operations will produce more greenhouse gas this year, than ever before. (1) The negative impacts from the tar sands include: The loss of habitat land, pollutants released into the air and water, loss of water from nearby waterways, decrease in wildlife populations, more tailings ponds, higher cancer rates among indigenous people, and oil spills through the distribution of these refined oils.

Boreal Forest

The Boreal Forest is considered to be the largest forest left on Earth. With three million square miles of land, it is home to a variety of species, including Walleye, Yellow-Bellied Sap Sucker, Canadian Lynx, and the Brown Creeper. (2)This beautiful forest also came with a curse; it contains a large amount of land needed for the drilling to extract tar sands. This forest is essential to the lives of many species, so you can imagine the detrimental impact this oil drilling has on the wildlife. The biggest danger these animals face is the deforestation caused by the need for more land to drill on. Deforestation has been a problem worldwide, causing several species to become endangered. Now, the problem has reached Canada, via the new oil sand business, endangering all the wildlife that inhabit there.

Woodland Caribou

One of the animals most harmed by habitat loss is the Woodland Caribou, an animal located in Canada that is already considered critically endangered. Not including the amount of forest leveled, the habitat impact is currently estimated at: 35,000 wells, 70,000 km of seismic lines, 12,000 km of pipelines, and 13,000 km of added roads. The destruction of their habitat has already caused their population to decrease by 50% in the past 10 years; with an expected 5-15% continued decrease per year. Out of the eighteen distinct Caribou herds living in Canada, nine are impacted, with three of them being critically impacted, three are stable, and the effects on the six remaining herds are unknown. If the tar sands keep expanding their operation, the Woodland Caribou is expected to become extinct. This would make the Woodland Caribou the third species of Caribou to disappear from the Earth. (3)

Gray Wolf            

In an effort to counter this loss of the Caribou population, Canada’s Fish and Wildlife Department have been killing hundreds of Gray Wolves yearly. They use poisoned bait traps, as well as gunning them down from helicopters, to exterminate a natural predator of the caribou, making way for more oil drilling. This attempt to poison wolves, via laced bait, results in even more unnecessary death. Eagles, dogs, and other animals also consume the poison bait and die too. These continued efforts to reduce the Gray Wolf population have cost the government over one million dollars, over the past several years. However, if the Caribous’ habitat destruction isn’t addressed, and the tar sands keep expanding their operation; the reduction of wolf populations will have been in vain. (4)

Along with the obvious loss of wildlife, the wolves being killed, there is also an unseen effect that comes from these killings. This threat is the negative impact that the removal of a species has on the habitat, through the food chain. Following the removal of wolves, we’ll look at how this affects the Lynx, via the change in the food chain. The Canadian Lynx is another mammal, endangered, that lives in the Boreal Forest. They compete with coyotes for their favorite dish, the Snowshoe Hare. (5)(6) Coyotes are rivaled by wolves for food, and are even killed by them. (7) So, if there are fewer wolves, then there are more coyotes; which means that less Lynx’s are being fed. This results in the decrease in population of another already endangered species. Disrupting the food chain of one animal affects every living species in the habitat.

Removing an animal from a habitat also results in the loss of benefits that animal offered the ecosystem. Looking at the roles Gray Wolves play in the ecosystem, we can see several negative impacts their removal causes. Similar to most predators, wolves are known to go after the weakest of the animals in a herd. This, survival of the fittest, results in herds becoming stronger as a whole. Through this elimination of weak animals, the spread of disease and disorders can also be prevented. An example of this can be seen through deer populations facing Chronic Wasting Syndrome, a contagious disease. Through wolves eating those infected, the herd experiences less exposure to this disease, resulting in a healthier population. Another benefit wolves have on the ecosystem is through the spreading of seeds. Research has been done to show that being hunted by wolves causes elk to move around to new areas of forest they wouldn’t normally go to. This encourages the spread of seeds to undergrown areas, which results in the growth of more habitat land for other animals in the ecosystem. (8)

Black Bear

Wolves aren’t the only animal being murdered by Canada due to these oil operations. In one year, 145 black bears were also gunned down by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Department. They were found wandering onto residential sites, as well as oil drilling sites, looking for food in the garbage. This was blamed on loss of food in the wild, due to the effects of deforestation, as well as poor garbage management by the oil companies. Keep in mind, these aren’t man eating Grizzly Bears being killed. These are the bears famous on YouTube for getting chased off by house cats. Other alternatives to killing them, such as tranquilizers, would be a better alternative to this so called threat. Although outrage over these deaths has been expressed, nothing has been done to prevent future killings by the government. (9)

Canadian Lynx Source: en.wikipedia.org

Canadian Lynx
Source: en.wikipedia.org

North American Black Bear Source: www.pixabay.com

North American Black Bear
Source: http://www.pixabay.com

 

Migrating Birds

Birds also fall victim to the tar sands, but in a different way than land animals. One of the most extreme ways birds are killed is through the tailings ponds. Tailings ponds are man-made containers of water contaminated with tar sand pollutants. Suggested by their name to be small; these tailings ponds are the exact opposite. They are so big you can even see them from space. These ponds, full of toxic waste, look like the perfect place to land for birds. Birds land, and face a slow, painful death. An oil developer, Syncrude, was even sued for three million dollars in 2008, following the deaths of over 1600 birds, mostly ducks, which landed in their tailing ponds. Not all birds die after landing in these ponds. The ones that make it out alive are contaminated with pollutants, absorbed through their skin, which they then release into the environment. Attempts to stop birds from landing in these ponds are being experimented with, such as scare crows and noise machines. However, these ideas aren’t very effective, and birds still fall victim to them. (10)

Whooping Crane Source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Whooping Crane
Source: http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

 

As tragic as it may be, tailings ponds aren’t the biggest threat the tar sands pose to birds. The loss of Boreal Forest land is negatively impacting breeding and migrating birds as well. The Boreal Forest acts as a nursery for over 300 species of protected birds every year. Included in this number is the Whooping Crane, a critically endangered bird that has as little as 400 individuals left. (11) Along with the Whooping crane, anywhere from 22 million – 170 million birds breed there every year, including other endangered species such as the Piping Plover. Out of these birds, 130 species are considered to be in danger due to tar sands deforestation and pollutant exposure. It is estimated that these factors will result in the deaths of anywhere from 58,000 – 402,000 different birds each year. Another study showed this would be the equivalent of 10-50% loss of the bird population dependent on the Boreal Forest. (12) Along with the threat of deforestation, and pollutants poisoning their breeding land, power lines also pose a hazard to migrating birds. Flying into power lines is actually the #1 killer of migrating Whooping Cranes. Allowing the distribution of these toxic oils will only result in the production of more power lines, and thus, more bird deaths. (13)

Aquatic life

Another negative impact the tar sands have on the environment is through the waterways. As mentioned earlier, the processing of the tar sands requires a large amount of water. Approximately three barrels of water is required for every barrel of oil obtained. This water comes directly from local sources, such as rivers and streams. Taking large amounts of water out of the ecosystem can have serious consequences on the local aquatic life. It is estimated that 172 billion gallons of water are taken every year. Ideally, the water would be recycled to the natural sources from which they came. Unfortunately, a lot of the water used is so polluted with toxins that it has to be stored in the tailings ponds, discussed earlier. It is estimated that around 85% of the water used is too polluted to be recycled back into the waterways. This off balance in the amount of water can affect aquatic life, the food chain, and cause even more unnecessary death. (14)

Along with disrupting the water levels, the tar sands are also poisoning the water. The release of tar sand byproduct gets into nearby rivers and lakes, harming the ecosystem. Evidence of this is seen through the fact that tailings ponds leak millions of liters of polluted water every day. This continuous leakage of pollutants adds up to 11 million liters a day. (15) This means that every year, around 4,000 million liters of toxic water is unintentionally reintroduced into the ecosystem. This release of toxins into the water results in the death and disease of several aquatic species. This affects land animals and birds as well, through bio-magnification. There have been independent studies done to try to explain why so many fish have tumors near these tar sand areas. The results were that fish in the area had 17-33x the legal limit of toxins in their bodies, such as arsenic. This is a direct cause of the tailings ponds leaking, and thus, the tar sands. (16)

Distribution

Although the tar sands are an obvious environmental hazard during drilling and refining; they also can have horrible environmental consequences during distribution. The tar sands are transported to the United States via a series of pipelines that run underground. Serious catastrophes can occur if these pipelines break. This happens more often than you would think. The most devastating pipeline burst happened on an Enbridge owned pipeline in Marshall, Michigan. The pipeline rupture took place in 2010, causing 1,100,000 gallons of oil to spill into the Kalamazoo River, over a period of 18 hours. The results were horrifying to the environment. The river ran dark, covering everything from vegetation to wildlife in oil. The cleanup forced thirty-five miles of the river to be shut down, while taking over two years to complete. Although the ecosystem never truly healed, the final cost for the cleanup totaled over one billion dollars. The health effects to the wildlife, and the community of Marshall, are still under investigation. (17)

Indigenous Communities

The people most negatively impacted by the tar sands operations, are the ones living closest to it. This mostly includes indigenous people living near the Boreal Forest in Canada, such as the community of Fort Chipewyan. These societies are faced with extreme air pollution, water pollution, and tainted food resulting from the poisoning of the environment. Evidence of this negative effect on these communities, can be seen in the steep rise of cancer among citizens. After concerns were expressed in Fort Chipewyan, a research study was done. The study tested ninety-four individuals and found that roughly 20% of them had some form of cancer. Further studies on the environmental factors, that impacted this rise in cancer, found that high levels of pollutants were present in local wildlife. There was even a study that found local Moose populations tested an arsenic level 453x the allowed limit. (18) The government claimed the average arsenic level was just above 17x the allowed amount. Either way, there is an elevated amount of arsenic in local wildlife. Other toxins found in wildlife included mercury, cadmium, selenium, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These poisons found in wildlife have caused these native communities to stem away from their traditional diets, to avoid health concerns. However, changing their diet from local foods to packaged foods has caused an increase in weight, which brings about other health concerns, such as heart disease and obesity. (19)

Concerns over the tar sands operations have been expressed ever since their beginning. From destroying the Boreal Forest, to polluting nearby environments, and causing several groups of indigenous people to become exposed to carcinogenic pollutants; the negative effects of the tar sands are not worth the money they make. Among this long list of concerns regarding this drilling, are the effects that they have on wildlife. This effect is shown in several ways, from causing the potential extinction of several species, to being responsible for the massive killings of local wolves and bears. Also impacted are the migrating birds that use this land for breeding ground. This destruction of the Boreal habitat land is responsible for millions of animal deaths every year. In order to stop these deaths, and preserve the environment, we must first stop the tar sands.

 

Bibliography

  1. “Oil Sands Could Threaten Millions of Migratory Birds.” Worldwatch Institute. January 1, 2013. Accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6052.
  2. Inkley, Doug. “Tar Sands Development to Lead to Poisoning of Wolves – National Wildlife Federation.” Tar Sands Development to Lead to Poisoning of Wolves – National Wildlife Federation. February 6, 2012. Accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.nwf.org/news-and-magazines/media-center/news-by-topic/wildlife/2012/02-06-12-tar-sands-development-to-lead-to-poisoning-of-wolves.aspx.
  3. “145 Black Bears Killed In Oil Sands.” The Huffington Post. February 22, 2012. Accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/22/black-bears-wildlife-alberta-oil-sands-tar_n_1293109.html.
  4. “Fueling Extinction – Fueling Extinction.” Fueling Extinction – Fueling Extinction. January 1, 2014. Accessed December 7, 2014. http://fuelingextinction.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=78.
  5. Cushman, Abi. “Gray Wolf Facts | Grey Wolves | Timber Wolf.” Animal Fact Guide. August 24, 2014. Accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.animalfactguide.com/animal-facts/gray-wolf/.
  6. Lewis, Renee. “Canada Tar Sands Linked to Cancer in Native Communities, Report Says | Al Jazeera America.” Canada Tar Sands Linked to Cancer in Native Communities, Report Says | Al Jazeera America. July 8, 2014. Accessed December 7, 2014. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/8/canada-oil-cancer.html.
  7. “Growth of Tar Sands Across the Midwest – National Wildlife Federation.” Growth of Tar Sands Across the Midwest – National Wildlife Federation. Accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.nwf.org/What-We-Do/Energy-and-Climate/Drilling-and-Mining/Tar-Sands/Michigan-Oil-Spill.aspx.
  8. “Air & Water Issues – Tar Sands – Tar Sands Solutions Network.” Air & Water Issues – Tar Sands – Tar Sands Solutions Network. Accessed December 7, 2014. http://tarsandssolutions.org/tar-sands/air-water-issues.
  9. “Boreal Forest.” Natural Resources Canada. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/forests/boreal/13071.
  10. “Population Regulation in Snowshoe Hare and Canadian Lynx: Assymetric Food Web Configurations between Hare and Lynx.” NCBI. May 18, 1997. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC24646/.
  11. “Does Interference Competition with Wolves Limit the Distribution and Abundance of Coyotes?” National Center for Biotechnology Information. November 1, 2007. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17922704.
  12. “Critter Catalog.” BioKIDS. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Lepus_americanus/.
  13. Valentine, Katie. “More Than 100 Birds Die After Landing On Tar Sands Waste Ponds In Canada.” ThinkProgress RSS. November 6, 2014. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/11/06/3589890/tailings-pond-birds-killed-canada/.
  14. “Rare Cancer Strikes.” Oil Sands Truth. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://oilsandstruth.org/rare-cancer-strikes.
  15. “Alberta Health: Fort Chip “Only” Eating Moose with 17-33 Times the Safe Arsenic Level.” Oil Sands Truth. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://oilsandstruth.org/alberta-health-fort-chip-only-eating-moose-17-33-times-safe-arsenic-level.
  16. “Alberta’s Oil Sands Water.” Alberta’s Oil Sands Water. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.oilsands.alberta.ca/water.html.
  17. “Tar Sands Basics.” Tar Sands Basics. January 1, 2012. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://ostseis.anl.gov/guide/tarsands/.

Footnotes:

  1. Tar Sands Basics, “Tar Sands Basics,” January 1, 2012, accessed December 8, 2014. http://ostseis.anl.gov/guide/tarsands/.
  2. Natural Resources Canada, “Boreal Forest,” accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/forests/boreal/13071.
  3. Doug, Inkley, “Tar Sands Development to Lead to Poisoning of Wolves – National Wildlife Federation,” Tar Sands Development to Lead to Poisoning of Wolves – National Wildlife Federation, February 6, 2012, accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.nwf.org/news-and-magazines/media-center/news-by-topic/wildlife/2012/02-06-12-tar-sands-development-to-lead-to-poisoning-of-wolves.aspx.
  4. Doug, Inkley, “Tar Sands Development to Lead to Poisoning of Wolves – National Wildlife Federation,” Tar Sands Development to Lead to Poisoning of Wolves – National Wildlife Federation, February 6, 2012, accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.nwf.org/news-and-magazines/media-center/news-by-topic/wildlife/2012/02-06-12-tar-sands-development-to-lead-to-poisoning-of-wolves.aspx.
  5. Doug, Inkley, “Tar Sands Development to Lead to Poisoning of Wolves – National Wildlife Federation,” Tar Sands Development to Lead to Poisoning of Wolves – National Wildlife Federation, February 6, 2012, accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.nwf.org/news-and-magazines/media-center/news-by-topic/wildlife/2012/02-06-12-tar-sands-development-to-lead-to-poisoning-of-wolves.aspx.
  6. NCBI, “Population Regulation in Snowshoe Hare and Canadian Lynx: Assymetric Food Web Configurations between Hare and Lynx,” May 18, 1997, accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC24646/.
  7. BioKIDS, “Critter Catalog,” accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Lepus_americanus/.
  8. National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Does Interference Competition with Wolves Limit the Distribution and Abundance of Coyotes?” November 1, 2007, accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17922704.
  9. Abi, Cushman, “Gray Wolf Facts | Grey Wolves | Timber Wolf,” Animal Fact Guide, August 24, 2014, accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.animalfactguide.com/animal-facts/gray-wolf/.
  10. The Huffington Post, “145 Black Bears Killed In Oil Sands,” February 22, 2012, accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/22/black-bears-wildlife-alberta-oil-sands-tar_n_1293109.html.
  11. Worldwatch Institute, “Oil Sands Could Threaten Millions of Migratory Birds,” January 1, 2013, accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6052.
  12. “Fueling Extinction – Fueling Extinction,” Fueling Extinction – Fueling Extinction, January 1, 2014, accessed December 7, 2014. http://fuelingextinction.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=78.
  13. Katie, Valentine, “More Than 100 Birds Die After Landing On Tar Sands Waste Ponds In Canada,” ThinkProgress RSS, November 6, 2014, accessed December 8, 2014. http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/11/06/3589890/tailings-pond-birds-killed-canada/.
  14. Worldwatch Institute, “Oil Sands Could Threaten Millions of Migratory Birds,” January 1, 2013, accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6052.
  15. Alberta’s Oil Sands Water, “Alberta’s Oil Sands Water,” accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.oilsands.alberta.ca/water.html.
  16. National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Does Interference Competition with Wolves Limit the Distribution and Abundance of Coyotes?” November 1, 2007, accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17922704.
  17. Oil Sands Truth, “Rare Cancer Strikes,” accessed December 8, 2014. http://oilsandstruth.org/rare-cancer-strikes.
  18. National Wildlife Federation “Growth of Tar Sands Across the Midwest ,” Growth of Tar Sands Across the Midwest – National Wildlife Federation, accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.nwf.org/What-We-Do/Energy-and-Climate/Drilling-and-Mining/Tar-Sands/Michigan-Oil-Spill.aspx.
  19. Renee, Lewis. “Canada Tar Sands Linked to Cancer in Native Communities, Report Says | Al Jazeera America,” Canada Tar Sands Linked to Cancer in Native Communities, Report Says | Al Jazeera America, July 8, 2014, accessed December 7, 2014. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/8/canada-oil-cancer.html.
Advertisements

One thought on “Alberta’s Wildlife Death Toll on the Rise

  1. Pingback: UI students report on Canadian tar sands for final projects | Iowa Environmental Focus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s