Tar sands threatens millions of birds, report says

Martin Mittelstaedt
December 2, 2008
The development of the tar sands could lead to the loss of more than 160 million birds over the next 30 to 50 years because of the elimination of habitat and deaths from drowning in tailings ponds, according to a report being released today.

The impact of the oil sands on birds has been in the spotlight, especially since a flock of 500 mallards landed in a Syncrude Canada Ltd. tailings pond near Fort McMurray, Alta., in late April. Images of the dead ducks spread around the world and became a public-relations nightmare for the petroleum industry and the Alberta government.

But the new report, compiled by the Natural Resources Defence Council and the Boreal Songbird Initiative in the United States, and the Pembina Institute in Canada, says relatively few birds are likely to be lost because of accidental drowning in the ponds, perhaps only 8,000 to 300,000.

The far greater threat arises, the report says, from the destruction of habitat due to tar sands strip mining, along with habitat fragmentation and degradation in areas where the thick bitumen will be extracted in situ using wells.

The estimate of bird losses, when habitat effects are included, ranges from a low of six million to a high of 166 million, spread over the 30- to 50-year period of oil extraction. The oil sands lie within what is known as the boreal forest, the vast band of wilderness that stretches across northern Canada. About half of all birds in the U.S. nest in the boreal forest and depend on it for their survival. Estimates of breeding pairs in the forest are as high as 500 birds in every 2.5 square kilometres.

Banner photo credit: Northern Images, by Wayne Sawchuck
Jennings Lake in northern BC

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