Wildlife in Peril: Nine Species in the Tar Sands War Zone

Up past our northern border is one of the most important wild ecosystems on earth: the Canadian boreal forest. This vast landscape stretches for thousands of square miles across the top of North America, providing habitat for countless animal species and the ancestral home for some of the original humans on this continent — known collectively as the First Nations.

Basically untouched until recent decades, the boreal forest’s great natural riches may also turn out to be its undoing: massive amounts of oil have been found in deposits known as “tar sands,” and the energy industry has kicked off a full-scale war on Mother Nature in their rush to boost their profits. Aided by a government that seems determined to wreck the country’s eco-friendly reputation, Big Oil is transforming huge parts of Alberta, Canada into something out of a nightmare, destroying vital wildlife habitat and putting whole populations at risk.

Read on to learn more about nine remarkable species that are directly threatened by tar sands development, then send a message to the President to help protect them.

Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou)

Woodland caribou are being pushed out by oil development in their habitat (photo: British Columbia Forest Service)
Alberta is one of the last homes of woodland caribou, which have adapted to live in wintry climes with snowshoe-like hooves and antlers that they use to shovel aside snow to reach the moss and lichen beneath.  Despite the fact that even the smaller females can outweigh an NFL linebacker (and males can top 400 pounds), woodland caribou are a painfully shy species that avoids humans as much as possible.  But booming tar sands development in the heart of their range, coupled with industrial logging and other activities, has destroyed a huge part of their habitat and driven several populations to the brink of extinction.

The Canadian federal and provincial governments seem happy to turn a blind eye to the problem, and a stakeholder group that should be leading the charge to protect this iconic species — the Endangered Species Conservation Committee — is stocked with representatives from the energy industry, agriculture and timber companies, who watered down the caribou recovery plan to a toothless piece of paper. And even then, Environment Minister Peter Kent ignored a court order and refused to issue emergency protections for at-risk herds. Scientists fear that industrial development could cause Canada’s woodland caribou to vanish by the end of the century.

Gray Wolf (Canis lupus)

Our understanding of gray wolves has come a long way since the days of Little Red Riding Hood. They are impressively smart, social animals that spend as much time playing as hunting, and live together in close-knit packs of 4 to 7 animals.

Gray wolves are a keystone species in the northern ecosystem (photo: flickr/YankeeNovember3)
Now prepare yourself for some shocking news: gray wolves eat caribou. They eat a lot of things, actually, everything from moose to mice, part of the reason wolves are considered a “keystone” of the food web, helping to balance populations and allowing ecosystems to thrive.

But in the eyes of the Canadian government this makes them a threat, and an easy scapegoat for the recent rapid declines of the caribou herds. So the government has embarked upon a plan to “cull” wolf populations using poison-laced bait and aerial hunts from helicopters. The poison, strychnine, is known for an excruciating death that progresses painfully from muscle spasms to convulsions to suffocation, over a period of hours. As if that weren’t awful enough, other animals like eagles and even domesticated dogs have been unintended casualties of the baiting campaign.

Black Bears (Ursus americanus)

Black bears like this cub like to eat the garbage from dumps around tar sands mines, much to their misfortune. (photo: Noah Katz)
It’s hard not to like black bears, with their curious natures and rotund bodies. Just like other wildlife, though, it is best not to mess with them — despite being small by bear standards, these guys can still tip the scales at half a ton, yet still sprint up to 30 mph. And while they usually eat things like berries, fish, and honey (yes, that rumor is true), black bears are notorious for getting into garbage cans and campers’ food coolers.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise by now that tar sands development has directly encroached on bear habitat, leading to more interactions between humans and this species. Unfortunately, the government’s approach has been similar to their wolf plan: shoot ’em and keep digging for oil.

Alberta Sustainable Resource Development says 145 black bears were killed by Fish and Wildlife conservation officers last year after being habituated to garbage in the oilsands region. The number of bears shot in the Fort McMurray district was nearly three times the count the previous year and the highest in recent history, said spokesman Darcy Whiteside. Nearly half — 68 bears — were shot in oilsands camps and facilities after being attracted to the camp by food, garbage or other attractants, Whiteside said Tuesday.

Canada Lynx (Lynx canadensis)

Canada Lynx near Whitehorse, Yukon (photo: Keith Williams)
In addition to having one of the coolest animal names on the planet, the Canada Lynx looks like something out of a superhero comic — long, black-tipped ears, a double pointed beard, huge paws and a beautiful silver-brown coat. They cover a lot of ground on their powerful legs and have been known to swim for miles across frigid rivers. The boreal forest is ideal habitat for these solitary hunters to track their favorite game, snowshoe hares.

Unlike bears, lynx shy away from contact with humans. Development in the eastern part of Canada has already forced out the big cats, and pressure from tar sands exploitation in Alberta is causing concerns there as well. And there’s a critical connection between gray wolves and lynx: wolves kill coyotes, which directly compete with lynx for snowshoe hare and other prey. So fewer wolves means more coyotes, which means fewer lynx. For a population that’s already threatened, that’s bad news. On the other hand, protecting wolves means lynx may rebound as well.

Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis)

Sandhill cranes face a double-whammy in Alberta and Nebraska (photo: flickr.com/nigel)
One of the oldest birds on planet earth (scientists think they evolved at least 2.5 million years ago), sandhill cranes are also some of the longest-lived, able to reach 21 years or more. Though hunted to dangerously low levels in the early part of the 20th century, the cranes have rebounded thanks to conservation efforts which have given them some breathing room in their unusually slow breeding cycle.

The big birds migrate thousands of miles each year from their breeding grounds in western Canada to as far south as Mexico, fattening up for a month in Nebraska’s Platte River valley. But this exposes them to a double-whammy from tar sands, with Alberta’s energy development destroying prime nesting habitat, and the danger of a spill in the Nebraska Sandhills region (from which they take their name) that could take away a crucial feeding ground. As it happens, their migratory pathway overlaps the route of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline almost mile-for-mile, meaning that a spill at any point will put this iconic species in harm’s way.

Walleye (Sander vitreus)

An angler in Ontario holds her latest catch (photo: flickr.com/Rowdy Rider)
Walleye (named for their reflective eyes, which allow them to see in low-light conditions) are the “official fish” of Saskatchewan, Alberta’s provincial neighbor. A mature adult can be 20 pounds or more, making them a staple for northern fishermen.

But walleye and several other native species of fish might soon become a scarce commodity if Big Oil gets its way. Residents of Fort Chipeweyan, Alberta (most of whose residents are First Nations members) have reported a pretty scary development in the last few years: lots and lots of deformed fish downstream of the tar sands developments. In 2010, commercial fishing ground to a halt due to concerns about heavy metals like mercury and cadmium…as if anyone would want to eat a filet with a golf-ball sized tumor. The Canadian government, not surprisingly, contests these claims, but independent data shows that contamination has reached 30 times the federally-accepted levels.

In addition to all that, tar sands extraction requires a lot of water — up to three barrels of water for every barrel of oil — and this has disrupted the normal cycles of of the Athabasca river and surrounding watersheds.

Moose (Alces alces)

It’s hard to play hide-and-seek when you weigh more than a ton (photo: flicker/Benjamin 1970)
Unlike most vegetarians, the Western Moose is a certifiable giant — it’s the largest species of deer on earth, standing seven feet tall at the shoulder and crowned with enormous antlers that span six feet across. They’re also (not to be rude, but it’s true) pretty funny looking. But don’t let the giant nose and skinny little legs fool you, because moose can be pretty ornerywhen the stakes are high enough.

This species has been a major part of native culture and their diet for millennia, but with numbers near Fort McKay, Alberta declining 60% in recent years, First Nations elders now have to travel up to 200 kilometers to find moose during their traditional hunt. Moose meat has also tested high in arsenic and carcinogens created by tar sands mining, endangering the health of the region’s indigenous communities.

Like woodland caribou, moose are prey for gray wolves, and toxins in moose meat spells trouble for their predators.

Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis)

Scaup, also known as “bluebills,” call the Athabasca River delta home (photo: Carol Foil)
Canada’s Boreal forest is the springtime home of half of North America’s birds. In particular, the delta formed by the Athabasca and Peace rivers is key habitat for  hundreds of species of migratory songbirds and waterfowl like the Lesser Scaup, a smallish duck with a dark purple head and brilliant yellow eyes. Scaup love the delta’s rich wetlands, where they can find their favorite foods — mollusks, weeds and insects — and nest.

Scaup (pronounced “skawp”) are a favorite of hunters but, like so many other creatures, tar sands operations are taking a toll. In addition to direct habitat loss, Big Oil has created a particularly gruesome way for these birds to die. One of the dirtiest parts of oil mining is so-called “tailings ponds,” gigantic open pits where the industry dumps its liquid waste. There are lots of these contaminated tailings ponds in the delta region, filled with toxic chemicals and oil, but which appear to flying birds like just another good spot to land. And when they do, it’s not hard to imagine what happens: slow, painful death. The industry’s solutions have ranged from the simple (and ineffective), like scarecrows, to the absurd — supersonic “cannons” that boom loud enough to disturb animals for miles around, and scare off any birds from landing in the sludge.

You and Me (Homo sapiens)

Climate change threatens our oceans, shorelines, and every other ecosystem on earth (photo: Barry Keleher)
Okay, technically we’re not wildlife, but tar sands mining has a huge impact on human health as well. High cancer rates in First Nations communities near the industrial zone may be linked to pollutants in the air and water. Declines in local fish, caribou, and moose populations means less of the healthy, traditional foods these communities rely on, not to mention representing a profound cultural loss. Water for drinking and irrigation is well-documented to be at risk from pipeline spills.

And perhaps the biggest threat of all is the danger posed by global warming, which has already reached a tipping point and could be pushed over the edge by burning Canada’s tar sands oil. Rising sea levels, extreme droughts, flooding — it might sound like the Apocalypse but in fact it’s already happening.


Take ActionSpeak up now! Tell President Obama to stand up for wildlife in the tar sands region, and stand strong against Big Oil’s plans to destroy the boreal forest.

National Wildlife Federation is helping to lead the charge against tar sands and Big Oil’s dirty projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, which would help trigger even more development in the boreal forest. We need your help to make sure that this pristine ecosystem and its magnificent animals don’t vanish forever.

To donate directly to our tar sands campaign, please go to NWF’s “Choose Your Cause” website, or visit NWF.org/tarsands to learn more and find out how you can make a difference.