Tar Sands Spell Big Trouble for Whooping Cranes

Whooping Cranes
Tar sands are putting the tallest birds in North America in jeopardy. Photo: USFWS
The recovery of the North American whooping crane is one of conservation’s most inspiring success stories. A century ago, there were thought to be between 500 and 1,400 of these birds living in the wild, but loss of habitat and hunting decimated the population to an all-time low of 15 in the early 1940s. Thanks to aggressive conservation efforts, the world’s last remaining flock of self-sustaining cranes has climbed to approximately 200 today.

But now, Canada’s tar sands operations are posing serious new threats to the long-term survival of one of the world’s most endangered birds.

From their Alberta breeding grounds which are being ravaged by toxic tailing ponds, open-pit mines, smokestacks and processing plants; to the proposed massive Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline which would cut through their habitat; to devastating droughts in their Texas wintering grounds—increasing tar sands production is making the cranes’ rebound a challenge.

Last year was the driest and second-hottest year on record in Texas, and droughts have made food and water scarce for whooping cranes–leaving at least one bird dead and many more scrambling to find food to sustain them through the winter.  And this is not the first time cranes have felt the impacts of drought in their wintering grounds:

In 2009, when Texas last suffered a severe drought, an estimated 23 whooping cranes died between November and March, when they typically head north to nest in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park. Tests indicated some had contracted rare diseases and were undernourished. Scientists believe some died of starvation. CBS News

This extreme weather is not a fluke. It is part of the trend of climate events around that world that scientists project will increase in severity if global warming emissions continue unabated. Increased tar sands oil production–which emits three times the carbon dioxide than conventional oil production–is exacerbating the crisis.

President Obama has committed to fighting global warming and has already taken our country in a direction to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from raising fuel efficiency standards to limiting pollution from coal-fired power plants. Now, he has an historic opportunity to have a major say in the future of tar sands, as the deadline for a decision on the dirty and dangerous Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline approaches on February 21.

The massive Keystone XL pipeline would double the amount of highly toxic tar sands currently being imported in the United States–carrying up to 900,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil through the same narrow migratory corridor that endangered whooping cranes rely on each spring–threatening rivers, marshes, wetlands and streams with sludgy, toxic tar sands oil.

In addition, if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, it would drive a massive expansion of tar sands operations over the coming decades and add immense volumes of global warming pollution into the atmosphere—putting whooping cranes in further jeopardy.

Now is a critical time for whooping cranes and for the future of our planet. We must make sure President Obama stands strong against the oil industry and protects vulnerable wildlife from the unacceptable risks of tar sands.

Help protect endangered whooping cranes by urging President Obama to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.