Written by Lisa Neff
Wisconsin Gazette news story
Destructive mining and drilling practices in the heart of Canada’s boreal forest are putting millions of America’s migratory birds at risk and have already resulted in potentially hundreds of thousands of fatalities, according to a report from the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Among the imperiled birds is the critically endangered whooping crane, considered a symbol of previous conservation success after it rebounded from a population low of just 15 cranes in the 1940s to more than 600 today.
Now this species’ precarious comeback is at risk from tar sands expansion, according to scientists.
Other migrating species threatened by Tar Sands activity include white-winged scoters, surf scoters, buffleheads and red-necked grebes, which nest in and migrate over the tar sands region.
Songbirds such as blackpoll warblers, Swainson’s thrushes, and yellow-rumped warblers also nest in and migrate through northern Alberta.
“Migrating birds don’t understand national boundaries and freely pass between Maine and Canada, leaving our nations and people with a shared responsibility,” said Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Tar sands mines and associated industrial development threatens the lands many birds rely on.”
The U.S. Department of Interior is under a legal obligation — known as the Pelly Amendment — to determine whether tar sands mining and drilling in Canada is undermining a century-old international treaty to protect North America’s shared songbirds and waterfowl.
“Unchecked tar sands development is turning a vast, irreplaceable breeding ground into a toxic wasteland,” said National Wildlife Federation senior counsel Jim Murphy. “Many of the birds Americans watch, enjoy, and hunt fly to and rely on this area. The Canadian Government has vowed to protect these birds, but it is turning a blind eye.”
As the report details, tar sands development sits in the heart of the previously pristine boreal forest, which provides important breeding habitat for birds. But now an area the size of Florida is being destroyed by huge open-pit mines, toxic waste tailings ponds that can be seen from space, extraction wells, noisy compressor stations, refineries, and networks of new roads, drilling pads, seismic lines and pipelines.
Oil-laden tailings ponds have resulted in the deaths of countless waterfowl.
In 2008, 1,600 ducks died in Syncrude tailings ponds.
An October 2010 storm resulted in hundreds of ducks landing on a Suncor tailings pond near Fort McMurray — at least 550 birds were too oiled to save.
As of 2010, 43 species of internationally protected birds had suffered fatalities from exposure to tar sands tailings ponds.
Unabated tar sands development could result in the reduction of 70 million hatchlings over a 40-year period.
Of the 130 internationally protected American migratory and songbird species listed in the report as threatened by tar sands development, many are familiar names, including: snow goose, American goldfinch, evening grosbeak, great blue heron, common loon, Northern pintail, wood duck, pine siskin, trumpeter swan, cedar waxwing and the pileated woodpecker.