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 with Rob Miskosky

A Fair Trade-off?

The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) recently released a report on The Status of Biodiversity in the Athabasca Oil Sands Area (AOSA). According to the ABMI, their business is to “monitor and report on the status (current condition) and trends of Alberta’s species, habitat, and human footprint” with an end goal to “provide relevant scientific information on the state of Alberta’s biodiversity to support natural resource and land-use decision making in the province.”

Which in Alberta, with its burgeoning population and free-for-all, get-it-all mentality, should be at the top of the government priority list.

The Athabasca oil sands region is located in the northeastern part of the province and consumes 14% of the provincial land base. This is an area three times larger than Vancouver Island, all of it existing within the boreal forest. It is also the breeding ground for a couple of hundred million birds of more than 200 species and supports Alberta’s threatened boreal woodland caribou population, as well as multiple forms of other wildlife.

Several species of fish, including “species of special concern” like the Arctic grayling, also call the oil sands region home. Considering the amount of resource extraction taking place in this sensitive region, land-use planning is extremely important, lest we lose many of the plants, animals and fish that are important to us.

According to the ABMI, “As of 2012, the total human footprint across the OSR (Oil Sands Region) was 13.8%. Agriculture was the largest footprint type, covering 7.3% of the region, followed by forestry at 3.1% and energy at 2.3%. In terms of trend in human footprint, however, agriculture footprint remained relatively unchanged over the years 1999-2012, while forestry and energy footprints increased by 72% and 44%, respectively.” In other words, there is a fair amount of human resource-related activity taking place here.

And where timber cutting is concerned, the unabated harvest of our forests, especially old growth forests that many of our birds and animals depend upon, appears to be reckless in approach.

The ABMI report looks at the status of plants and animals in the region, “including birds, winter-active mammals, armoured mites, vascular plants, and mosses and liverworts, within Alberta.” It highlights those that show the most sensitivity to human development, using a measure of how much more or how much less common a species is relative to an undisturbed landscape free of human footprint, called the Biodiversity Intactness Index. In other words, an area with no human activity is given a rating of 100% intact, whereas a parking lot would be given a rating of 0% intact.

The end result? “The ABMI Biodiversity Intactness Index for all 425 species assessed in the oil sands regions is 88%... An intactness value of 88% represents a 12% deviation from expected abundance relative to an undisturbed area.”

“The amazingly resilient coyote thrives where human
footprint exists, others not so much.”
So, things aren’t so bad in the oil sands region after all... or are they?

Some species, like the coyote, fox and wolf thrive where there is a high human footprint. Surprisingly, the river otter was found to be more abundant than expected as well. But others, like the caribou, marten, fisher and even the red squirrel aren’t doing so well. Moreover, the AOSA is home to 28 species of bird, mammal or fish that are considered “at risk”, with six of those considered “threatened” by the Government of Canada and/or by the Government of Alberta. A high number indeed.

According to ABMI, a species of special concern, the black-throated green warbler “is approximately 50% less abundant than expected relative to an undeveloped landscape free of human footprint. This small songbird prefers old forest habitat (tree stands between 80-130 years old), elements of which, such as large trees and snags, are also less abundant than expected throughout the region.”

Two furbearers, the marten and fisher, both dependent on old growth forests, are also less abundant in this region than expected.

“As the Government of Alberta proceeds with developing biodiversity indicators and thresholds for various regional land use plans, it’s precisely this type of unbiased, evidence-based information that should inform the deliberations,” said ABMI Executive Director Kirk Andries in a press release.

Does a small human footprint create a large depression? It would appear so.

And the trade-off, caribou, warblers, marten and fisher for coyotes, wolves and magpies, may not be so desirable. Wildlife management will indeed be challenging in the not so distant future. ■

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