Oilsands development could lead to 166 million fewer songbirds: new study

December 2, 2008
EDMONTON A new report by a prominent American scientist suggests that songbirds will pay a hefty price for the development of Alberta's oilsands.

The study, to be released Tuesday in Edmonton, suggests that cumulative effects from plans currently on the books could eventually deprive North American skies of up to 166 million birds.

"When you start actually trying to estimate the total numbers and what that impact really looks like, it is pretty shocking," said lead author Jeff Wells of Cornell University.

Wells worked on the report with Alberta's Pembina Institute and the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defence Council.

He used a combination of previous studies and mathematical modelling to estimate what the eventual impact of oilsands development could be on birds.

The boreal forest is a crucial breeding ground for many species that migrate throughout the continent, from tiny warblers to tundra swans to common songbirds such as blackbirds and grosbeaks.

Between 22 million and 170 million birds breed every year in the woods and wetlands that could see effects from oilsands development.

"Virtually the entire populations of some species in some years migrate through the region," Wells said. "It's globally significant."

The habitat is threatened by strip mining, wetlands draining, toxic tailings ponds and construction of roads, pipelines and other facilities that chop up once-undisturbed forests into smaller blocks.

Wells calculates those activities could eventually destroy habitat for up to 18 million birds a year. Over time, reducing breeding stock by that much every year could drastically reduce the number of birds winging along flyways. Wells estimated the size of that loss over 30 to 50 years at between six million and 166 million birds.

"It's like taking the principal out of the bank. You lose that ability to grow more birds."

Oilsands developers point out they are required to restore lands they have disturbed, but Wells said the pace is too slow. As well, there's no proof anyone can successfully reclaim wetlands.

Habitat fragmentation is becoming an increasing worry for bird scientists. Chopping up a forest into blocks changes wind and drainage patterns and increases access for predators.

Fragmented forests still host birds, but the mix is different, Wells said.

"The birds that occurred there were not the same. You tended to have more of the common resident birds, not what we think of as forest birds."

Even noise makes a difference, he suggested.

"Just the noise alone from the compressor station causes a measurable decrease in density of birds."

The report gives recommendations that have been made before by other environmental groups, including:

-A moratorium on new developments and improvements to projects already in the works.

-Better protection for wetlands.

-Dry waste systems rather than wet tailings ponds that attract birds.

-Better methods for restoring wetlands and an increased pace of land reclamation.

Wells also urges governments to consider other energy sources than oilsands oil.

Critics such as the Natural Resources Defence Council have mounted an information campaign in the United States to try to convince consumers not to accept synthetic crude from the oilsands. The group points to environmental damage and the higher amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the oil's manufacture.

"People in the U.S want to know more about how their economic decisions and policy decisions are impacting things that they care about," Wells said. "There are ways that people in the U.S. could impact the future of the tarsands."
Banner photo credit: Northern Images, by Wayne Sawchuck
Jennings Lake in northern BC

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