A newly released report details how extraction of tar-sands petroleum is directly impacting populations of wild birds in the boreal forest area of northern Alberta, Canada.

Danger in the Nursery: Impact on Birds of Tar Sands Oil Development in Canada’s Boreal Forest” was released in early December by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Boreal Songbird Initiative and Pembina Institute.

The 39-page report identifies several ways in which tar-sand development is affecting populations of a myriad of species, including:

* Loss of forest and wetland habitat
“The projected strip-mining of 740,000 acres of forests and wetlands in the tar sands will result in the loss of breeding habitat for between 480,000 and 3.6 million adult birds over the next 30-50 years,” according to the report. “The corresponding impact on breeding will mean a loss of 4.8 million to 36 million young birds over a 20-year period and a loss of 9.6 million to 72 million birds over a 40-year period.”
* Mortality of birds that get trapped in tailings ponds
“Annual bird mortality on current tar sands tailings ponds could range from more than 8,000 birds to well over 100,000.”
* Fragmentation of habitat from drilling
“Numerous bird studies have shown that as habitats become fragmented, specific species are lost from isolated habitat patches.”
* Water withdrawals
“Tar sands surface mining, in situ extraction, and upgrading use large volumes of water taken from the Athabasca River for mining and from underground saline aquifers for in situ extraction. The tar sands surface mining operation itself requires the total draining, destruction, and removal of the wetland habitats overlying the targeted bitumen deposit. An estimated 40 percent of the 740,000 acres of habitat that will be removed in the tar sands strip-mining process are wetlands.”
* Air and water toxins
“Heavy metals, including mercury, lead, and cadmium, are released into the air from tar sands refining processes and machinery emissions and from leakage and emissions from tailings ponds.”

“At a time when bird populations are rapidly declining, this report puts into perspective the far reaching effects of tar sands oil development on North America’s birds,” said the report’s lead author Jeff Wells, Ph.D. of the Boreal Songbird Initiative. “The public needs to understand the real and long-term ecological costs of this development and determine if this is acceptable.”

Species especially being impacted by declines in the extent of boreal forest include, for example, the Lesser Yellowlegs, Blackpoll Warbler, Canada Warbler, Boreal Chickadee, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Rusty Blackbird, according to information at the BSI website, where pictures and video showing tar-sand development are also available. Numerous other “at-risk species” also occur in the tar-sands development area.

“This development is destroying habitat for waterfowl and songbirds that come from all over the Americas to nest in the Boreal. Each year between 22 and 170 million birds breed in the 35 million acres of Boreal forest that could eventually be developed for tar sands oil,” according to the report.

“Canada’s Boreal forest is a globally important destination for birds as a nesting area and breeding habitat, especially for an array of wetland-dependent birds,” according to the Boreal Songbird Initiative. “Unfortunately the rapidly expanding tar sands oil extraction industry increasingly puts these birds at risk. It is estimated that half of America’s migratory birds nest in the Boreal forest, and each year 22–170 million birds breed in the area that could eventually be developed for tar sands oil. The report projects that the cumulative impact over the next 30–50 years could be as high as 166 million birds lost, including future generations. The report suggests impacts will increase in the next 30–50 years, despite international treaties to protect these birds.”

The report also identifies how construction of pipelines associated with tar-sands development have an effect on the environment a great distance from the site of mining. A proposed pipeline for natural gas that would follow the MacKenzie River valley is specifically identified as being detrimental to wild birds and their habitats.

“Natural gas from the Mackenzie Delta would be extracted using a network of wells, pipelines, roads, and other facilities and shipped south along large transmission pipelines. Heavy machinery would be deployed to construct the infrastructure, and new underground pipelines would tunnel under or cross 580 rivers and streams. The environmental impacts from gas development include clearing of vegetation, fragmenting habitat, damaging permafrost, and soil erosion.”

“The loss of as many as 166 million birds is a wholly unacceptable price to pay for America’s addiction to oil,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Natural Resource Defense Council, a contributing author to the report. “Birds tell us so much about what is going on in the environment around us. This report makes it very clear that they are telling us it is time for a change in American energy policy. There are better energy options available in North America that do not foul our air, poison our waters, or kill our backyard birds.”

Several measures are suggested by the authors of the report, to protect boreal birds and their habitats. They include:

  • “Stop Granting Approvals for New Tar Sands Developments
  • “Protect Bird Habitat and Regulate Environmental Impacts of Tar Sands Developments
  • “Ensure Best Practices in the Tar Sands
  • “Implement Laws Protecting Migratory Birds
  • “Move Away from Dependence on Tar Sands as a Fuel Source”

“This report is yet another wake up call to the government in Alberta, as it confirms that the cumulative impact of oil sands development is on an unsustainable trajectory,” said Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, another contributing author. “It is clear that oil sands mining and in-situ development is already taking a toll on boreal birds. Alberta must move quickly to implement long overdue conservation planning and policies to address these impacts.”

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