Wood Buffalo National Park. It is an amazing park located on the Northwest Territories and Alberta border. This park is the largest national park in all of Canada and was originally established in order to protect the only herds of wood bison left in northern Canada. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains North America’s largest freshwater inland river delta¹, the Peace-Athabasca Delta; and is the location of the only natural nesting habitat in the world for one of the rarest birds in North America, the endangered whooping crane.
The whooping crane is a magnificent bird. The tallest bird in North America, it stands at nearly 1 ½ meters. It is striking to see the contrast of snowy white plumage and black wingtips as it soars overhead; neck, legs, and wings all outstretched. It circles higher and higher on an updraft, gaining altitude before gliding away at speeds as high as 100 km/h.² These monogamous birds form life-long pair bonds and return to the same location every year to breed where they perform an amazing mating dance where they bow their heads, flap their wings, and bounce around to impress their mate.
It is estimated that the whooping crane populations could have once numbered more than 10,000 before being wiped out to near extinction in 1941.³ This beautiful bird full of personality has become a symbol of wildlife conservation around the world.
The Conservation Success Story
The whooping crane is a bird that has recovered from the brink of extinction. Mainly due to habitat loss and hunting, the whooping crane’s populations dropped as low as 15 or 16 migratory birds and 6 non-migratory birds by 1941.⁴ Due to extensive conservation initiatives, the populations increased and there are now, as of August 2011, 437 wild birds.⁵ The populations are continuing to increase with a growth of 40% in the ten years from 1998 to 2008.⁶
These successes could mainly be contributed to two conservation actions in the 1900s. These were the introduction of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act between Canada and the United States in 1916 and the establishment of Wood Buffalo National Park in 1922. These two actions enabled the protection of the nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park and wintering grounds in Texas. Many parties, from government agencies and nonprofit organizations to volunteers and activists have played a role in the recovery of the whooping crane. From habitat protections to reintroduction efforts, extensive research to captive breeding programs, this has been an important conservation success story, an amazing feat, and something to be proud of; however, with a population of only 437 birds, the whooping crane still sits on a knife’s edge. Any negative event such as a natural disaster, chemical spill, or rapid degradation of habitat could move their status from endangered to critically endangered or even extinct.
Habitat degradation is a large potential threat to the birds. Whooping cranes rely on their habitat at their nesting sites, at their overwintering grounds, and at stopover points during migration. Because their wetland nesting habitat falls in a remote area, undisturbed by people, there is at this point in time not much threat currently on the breeding grounds. The main threat would be habitat degradation from nearby industrial development. Nearby Lake Athabasca drains into the Arctic Ocean via the Slave River which flows through the park. This is important because the Athabasca is a huge lake with inflows of both the Athabasca and Peace Rivers, both of which have a lot of industrial development along their banks including flow regulation, oil sands projects, pulp and paper production, and forestry.⁷ Any contaminants in the water can spread into the park degrading the quality of the water and soil. As well, airborne contaminants from industrial activity can spread into the park through the atmosphere possibly degrading the habitat.
The wintering grounds is another habitat that whooping cranes rely on. A 2010 study concluded that the key limiting factor to the long-term population growth of whooping cranes is their wintering habitat. There is currently only sufficient habitat at Aransas, Texas, the birds’ wintering grounds, to support approximately 1,000 cranes.⁸ In order for the cranes to be downlisted from endangered to threatened, this is a key number they would need to reach. In order for the birds to recover beyond this, much more wetland habitat will need to be protected and the quality of the habitat that currently exists will need to be upheld. Human development, rising sea levels, climate change, and chemical spills are all threats to this important habitat.
Stopover points in migration are the third habitat type that the birds rely on. The most dangerous part of a bird’s life is migration⁹ and protecting the habitat at stopover points is a key cog, maybe the most key, in any strategy to protect them. To get a better understanding of how whooping cranes die, a 2014 study found that over 80% of their deaths occur during the 6 week period during migration.¹⁰ This shows how vulnerable the birds are during this 11.5% of their life. From what the data in the study could tell, the largest causes of mortality were due to collisions with power lines and being shot by hunters or poachers. Due to the extremely low number of birds, any mortality can have an impact on the species. This is why any key stopover locations need to be protected and potential hazards to the birds need to be looked at and addressed.
So where does the Teck Frontier Oil Sands Mine Project fall into this? In 2009, the Alberta Energy Regulator expanded the mining boundaries of the oil sands for the first time in over 20 years to include newly discovered bitumen at the site of the proposed Frontier Mine. The Frontier Mine is a $20.6 billion project proposed by Teck Resources that would develop a 262 km² open pit oil sands mine about 30 km south of the national park. This is one of the largest oil sands mines ever proposed in Alberta and would produce a projected 260,000 barrels of oil per day.¹¹
This proposed project was immediately recognized by environmental and conservation organizations as well as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) as a potential threat to Wood Buffalo National Park due to its close proximity to the park and it being located upstream. Below is a map showing the proposed mine and other threats to Wood Buffalo National Park from the UNESCO report.¹²
A UNESCO report in 2017 addressed the proposed Frontier Mine and brought up numerous concerns including possible risks to Wood Buffalo National park such as leaks and spills from tailing ponds; additional withdrawal of water; and contaminates such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and sulphate being atmospherically deposited into the park.¹³ The UNESCO concerns have been echoed by numerous environmental and conservation organizations and the area's aboriginal people.
Alberta and Canada had a joint review panel review the project and the panel found that the project would result in a loss of whooping crane stopover habitat in migration and recognized the potential for whooping cranes to come into contact with contaminated water or bitumen at tailing ponds. The panel recognized that within the local area, the project would remove 98.6% of suitable habitat for whooping cranes and that that habitat would never be restored to habitat appropriate for the birds. The panel, however, still decided that due to the distance from the breeding habitat, availability of other stopover habitat, and what they deemed a low potential for mortality from tailing ponds (although the report said it could not be ruled out), there would be no adverse effect on the recovery of whooping cranes.¹⁴ This is troubling to hear as this report is an important resource for decision makers while deciding whether to approve the project or not.
The Teck Frontier Mine has the potential to cause direct mortality to whooping cranes through its tailing ponds, a possibility of impacting the quality of the breeding habitat of the birds through contaminants, and will certainly destroy and degrade important stopover habitat for the whooping cranes. It would be naive to assume the mine will not impact the endangered whooping cranes.
The Right Thing
The Eskimo curlew, the great auk, the passenger pigeon. All of these birds have something in common: they’re North American birds that have gone extinct directly because of humans. Whooping cranes almost had the same fate, we almost wiped them out completely. We were able to pull them out of this critical endangerment and help them come back and now we have a responsibility to make sure we do not proceed with any actions that will hurt these birds.
The Teck Frontier Mine will have many negative impacts on our environment and natural world. It will increase our greenhouse gas emissions; it will destroy sensitive wetland habitat; it could jeopardize the sustainability of the important Ronald Lake bison herd; and it could quite possibly impact our endangered whooping cranes. Canada must not allow this mine to proceed. We need to do the right thing.
1. Ramsar, C. (1994). convention on Wetlands of International importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat, The Convention on Wetlands text, as amended in 1982 and 1987,; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
2. Urbanek, R. P. and J. C. Lewis (2015). Whooping Crane (Grus americana), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.153
3. COSEWIC. 2010. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Whooping Crane Grus americana in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. x + 36 pp.
4. Boyce, M. S. (1987). Time-series analysis and forecasting of the Aransas/Wood Buffalo whooping crane population. In Proceedings of the 1985 Crane Workshop (Vol. 4, pp. 1-9). Platte River Whooping Crane Habitat Maintenance Trust and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
5. Toochin, R., & Cecile, D. Status and Occurrence of Whooping Crane (Grus americana) in British Columbia.
6. COSEWIC. 2010. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Whooping Crane Grus americana in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. x + 36 pp.
7. Parks Canada. (2019). Wood Buffalo National Park World Heritage Site Action plan. Retrieved from the Parks Canada website: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pnnp/nt/woodbuffalo/info/action
8. Stehn, T. V., & Prieto, F. (2010). Changes in winter whooping crane territories and range 1950-2006.
9. Belaire, J. A., Kreakie, B. J., Keitt, T., & Minor, E. (2014). Predicting and mapping potential whooping crane stopover habitat to guide site selection for wind energy projects. Conservation biology, 28(2), 541-550.
10. Stehn, T. V., & Haralson-Strobel, C. L. (2014). An update on mortality of fledged Whooping Cranes in the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population.
11. Bennett, Deborah; Jaremko, Jim; Bentein, Nelson (November 6, 2018). "On the Frontier: Teck advances milestone new oilsands mine in a new era of energy development". JWN Energy. Retrieved February 21, 2020.
12. UNITED NATIONS EDUCATIONAL, SCIENTIFIC AND CULTURAL ORGANIZATION (UNESCO). (2017). Reactive monitoring mission to Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada.
13. UNITED NATIONS EDUCATIONAL, SCIENTIFIC AND CULTURAL ORGANIZATION (UNESCO). (2017). Reactive monitoring mission to Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada.
14. Alberta Energy Regulator, Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. (2019). Report of the joint review panel: Teck Resources Limited Frontier Oil Sands Mine project.