First Nations critical of oilsands biodiversity report

First Nations critical of oilsands biodiversity report
A crew from ABMI conducts a terrestrial monitoring exercise near Fort McMurray.Photo: Caitlin Willier, ABMI.

A report showing plant and animal life in the oilsands region is flourishing at more than 80 per cent compared to undisturbed areas is raising eyebrows among those conducting a First Nations community monitoring program downstream.

A recently published report from the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) shows an average of 88 per cent of animal and plant populations in the oilsands region is intact when compared to an area untouched by human development.

Bruce Maclean, research coordinator for the Mikisew Cree First Nation and head of Fort Chipewyan’s community-based water monitoring efforts, said the report does not accurately reflect what’s happening on the ground in First Nations communities downstream of the oilsands.

“I don’t think their methodology is reflective in any way of the vast knowledge that the elders and land users have of what’s really, truly going on in the delta,” Maclean said.

“You can’t fly in helicopters and look at a couple tracks in the snow with some grad students every month and try to tell us that they know what’s going on,” he said. “They’d have much more value in doing something less quantitative (and) more qualitative by working with elders in the community. Take them on the land and ask them what things have changed, what things that have declined.”

The ABMI report is the first of its kind from the not-for-profit monitoring institute to look at biodiversity in the entire oilsands region. Data collected from 2003 to 2012 accounts for human development from agriculture, forestry and energy sectors in the oilsands regions of Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River.

Jim Herbers, information director for the ABMI, told The Journal the information they are providing is separate from traditional knowledge by design.

“We’re trying to be very careful not to be pro-conservation, pro-industry or pro-government or any one perspective, just to tell the truth straight up in the best way we can,” he said.

Biodiversity high, development low: report

According to the report, 13.8 per cent of the region is visibly covered with industry, up from 11.3 in 1999. The majority of that growth is in the forestry industry with energy a close second.

Native birds are the most affected by human development, the report says, with an average of 80 per cent intact compared to an undisturbed area.

Herbers said the data is averaged, which means each species has its own unique response to the growth of development.

“There’s hundreds of stories here about individual species and how they respond, about what times of land use are affecting the ecosystem compared to others,” he said.

Some species, such as the black-throated green warbler, which are included on the Alberta Species At Risk list, are only 50 per cent intact in the region, the report states.

On the flip side, the 88 per cent total includes a spike in the number of animals that thrive in developed areas, such as coyotes and magpies.

Woodland caribou were studied at length by the ABMI, despite little available data on their numbers. According to the report, there is some evidence that the six caribou populations in the region are declining at an even faster rate than the increases in human footprint in the region.

Research coming on extent of impacts

While the report’s data shows the human footprint in the oilsands region is much lower than in the rest of the province, it excludes the type of impact the footprint has, Herbers said.

“Our (scientists) are looking at that right now. I can’t yet say, ‘Look, the impact of energy development is having this effect while agriculture has this effect and forestry another,’ but I expect that in a few years the research will be enought that I can point to what the relative contribution of each one of those footprint types are on biodiversity,” he said.

ABMI will continue monitoring the oilsands region indefinitely and, as research methods mature and more data comes in, will be able to provide a more complete story, Herbers said.

Alberta research has no traditional knowledge

While he appreciates that ABMI has a role to play, Maclean called its report another example of scientific research excluding traditional knowledge.

He, along with many other First Nations advocates, are constantly pushing for research on the oilsands to include Aboriginal knowledge, but have been met with “a complete and utter closed door,” he said.

Another sore point for Maclean is that ABMI is partially funded by the Joint Oilsands Monitoring (JOSM) program, a federal and provincial monitoring initiative from which all First Nations in the oilsands region have withdrawn after calling it a frustrating and futile process.

“The fact that we were pretty much ostracized from JOSM, we are going to start seeing problems because the research and publications coming out of it, none of them have any First Nations input,” Maclean said.

To read the full ABMI report, visit

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