Canada Fails to Protect Wood Bison Herd from Tar Sands

As we await the President’s anticipated rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, new information on iconic wood bison further demonstrates how tar sands oil harms wildlife every step of the way.

In the productive habitat of Northern Alberta in Canada, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) is fighting against the clock to protect a productive wood bison herd known as the Ronald Lake Wood Bison (RLWB) herd.

Wood bison
Wood bison are threatened by tar sands extraction. Photo Credit USFWS.

Wood Bison at Risk

Wood Bison, the largest North American land mammal, are at risk in Alberta. The Ronald Lake Wood Bison herd is culturally significant to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, genetically unique, and at risk from a massive proposed tar sands mine, development and non-indigenous hunting.  As tar sands mining invades Northern Alberta, members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation have seen hunting productivity drop, finding clear signs of non-indigenous takes of Bison occurring.

In Canada, First Nation members rely heavily on subsistence hunting. Canadian Constitutional law protects First Nation hunting, fishing and trapping rights.

Report Shows Canada’s Failure to Protect Wood Bison

Based on findings in a March 2015 bison report by scientists at the University of Alberta and Royal Alberta Museum, it appears as though the provincial and federal government have failed to protect the herd.  The province of Alberta has justified this lack of protection with a determination that the herd is in contact with a nearby disease ridden herd, and therefore does not deserve protections from either non-indigenous hunters or tar sands mining operations.

But the recent report which tracked bison movement, found that the herd is healthy and not in contact with diseased bison. This finding indicates that the herd should be protected.  Thus, it appears that the failure to protect this herd is yet another example of tar sands mining causing a trampling on the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s culture, way of life, and ability to hunt and provide for themselves.

Lack of protections for the wood bison are part of a disturbing trend.  First Nation leaders have sought emergency protections to keep the herd healthy in 2009, but were denied.  Three years later the First Nation released a report from their meeting with Alberta government outlining co-management protection measures for both bison and caribou in an area under pressure for tar sands development.  The report called for no development and no non-indigenous hunting to protect the herds and ensure sustainability.  Unfortunately, the government has largely ignored the report and the First Nation’s request.

Teck Frontier – A Direct Threat to Wood Bison

One particularly large threat to the bison herd is huge proposed open pit tar sands mine called the Teck Frontier project.  Teck Resources Ltd. wants to strip the land bare and open a large, toxic mining operation that would impact Ronald Lake Bison’s habitat.  The proposed mine would be 24,000 hectares, or 92 square miles, and begin operations in 6 years.  Already exploratory roads for the mine have exposed the herd to non-indigenous hunting.   Full development would further endanger the herd and harm indigenous people who rely on it.

Without governmental protections, basic data to assess the impacts of the mine on the herd and the First Nation people who rely on the herd are not being gathered and assessed. In short, the Canadian and Alberta Governments are turning a blind eye to impacts on this herd of perhaps 180 wood bison and giving a green light to tar sands mining.

This may be because protection of this herd would mean that tar sands extractors could not get their way and tar sands mining in the impacted area would have to be curtailed.

As with migratory birds, caribou and other wildlife in Alberta, the Canadian government is putting tar sands first, whatever the cost to wildlife.

It’s clearer than ever that tar sands oil is bad for wildlife.  President Obama can take a big step towards protecting wildlife and keeping tar sands oil in the ground by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline and other pipelines that will enable tar sands extraction.

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