Endangered whooping cranes face ‘enormous threat’ from oilsands

Endangered whooping cranes face ‘enormous threat’ from oilsands
The majestic Whooping crane in flight.Photo by Klaus Nigge.

The survival of North America’s last migrating whooping crane flock is under threat from Alberta’s oilsands, and regulatory bodies involved in the industry are virtually ignoring the birds according to a report released last week.

New GPS monitoring data collected from banded whooping cranes during the flock’s semi-annual 4,000 km migration shows some of the birds landing on disturbed land north of Fort McMurray, near toxic oilsands tailings ponds.

The flock, which winters in the Aransas Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, and summers in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories, has grown to 279 birds after being on the verge of extinction in the 1940s.

Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch, the organization that wrote the report, told The Journal that the birds are still at-risk for extinction.

“There has been a recent increase (in their population), and that’s a good news story, but there is still a long way to go,” Lee said. “And now the oilsands have created this enormous new threat to the long-term sustainability of the species.”

Lee said that if a spring storm or other natural occurrence forces a large number of whooping cranes to land on a tailings pond during migration, it could be catastrophic for the flock.

Meanwhile, the cranes face a different threat on the other end of their migration path. The approval process for a proposed nuclear power plant in Victoria, Texas, 100 km north of the whooping cranes’ summer home, is currently underway.

That project may be stopped on the basis of crane protection, Lee said, because in America the Endangered Species Act gives conservation groups the ability to take legal action to protect the birds from water pollution.

In Canada, on the other hand, the oilsands industry has given only slight consideration to the endangered birds, Lee said.

“During the environmental impact and Joint Review Panel decisions on the Kearl and Jocelyn oilsands operations, even though First Nations raised concerns about whooping cranes, the companies only gave, at best, cursory consideration of the cranes,” Lee said. “It’s hard to believe in America this would happen.”

A spokesperson for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development told CTV News that the department is aware of whooping cranes passing through the oilsands, but there is little the government can do about it as the time the cranes spend in the region is brief and unpredictable.

“There’s no doubt they stop occasionally, but there’s no place they stop consistently,” said Dave Ealey.

Whooping cranes were designated as endangered in Canada in the year 2000. The birds are protected in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act.

A whooping crane expert with the Canadian Wildlife Service, Mark Bidwell, told The Journal on May 24, 2011 that despite the steady increase in crane numbers over the past decade, the species is not yet near a stable population.

“Even when you have growth, if you have low population numbers it is going to take many years to get to the point where they are not considered endangered,” Bidwell said after flying over the nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park. “If some major natural disaster happened we could lose the entire species.”

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